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Croatian football chief flies in for England match and is arrested for shoplifting

By Emily Dugan

England, we were told, were the team that needed to draw. But in the approach to last night's crucial Euro 2008 qualifying match, it was the general secretary of the Croatian Football Association who picked up the pens and paper.

And, for a while, Zorislav Srebric, 67, appeared to be in danger of securing Croatia's most embarrassing away result in history after he was arrested by police on suspicion of stealing pens and newspapers from a branch of WH Smith at Gatwick airport's South Terminal soon after he and the team landed on Tuesday night.

But Mr Srebric was later released without charge and Sussex Police confirmed that no further action would be taken. The Croatian Football Federation (CFF) said suggestions that its leader would deliberately try to avoid paying for goods were "nonsense".

In a statement, it claimed the misunderstanding arose when Mr Srebric stopped to buy newspapers and was distracted when he saw his team walk into the arrivals area. In the confusion, he rushed off to organise his players and usher them through passport control but police believed he was deliberately trying to avoid paying for his newspapers.

A CFF spokesman said: "Unfortunately, he was taken to a police station, where they determined it was a misunderstanding. Instead of [being let out after] five minutes, they said he should stay for a while because of procedure.

"According to Mr Srebric, the policemen behaved in a correct manner."

The drama unfolded as the players were arriving to take on England in last night's match at Wembley the final Group E game which was crucial to the home side's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008.

A police source told The Sun newspaper: "We went there and when we arrested him he started yelling. Even though he was Croatian, he spoke good English.

"There were loads of sporty men hanging around and some of our lads recognised them as the Croatian national team. When Srebric gave his name and said he was the head of the Croatian FA, we were stunned."

The incident involving Mr Srebric has echoes of the arrest of Bobby Moore in 1970. The England football captain was charged with stealing an emerald bracelet during a stopover in Colombia en route to the World Cup finals in Mexico, although he was later cleared. It was thought that he was the victim of a blackmail plot.

England fans arriving at the 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium last night were praying that Steve McLaren's team would perform well in their most crucial match of the season. The side were given renewed hope of qualifying for the Euro 2008 tournament in Switzerland and Austria when Israel beat Russia on Saturday. Croatia had already qualified before last night's game. McClaren, facing criticism for the team's lacklustre performances, said there would be "no excuses" if England failed to qualify.

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