Croatia and Serbia’s soccer players play each other for the first time since independence tomorrow in Zagreb, in a highly charged tie given wider significance by political, cultural and historical ties, as well as fresh memories of war.
The buildup to the Group A World Cup qualification match has dominated the media in both countries for weeks and has been billed as the “match of the decade.”
Tickets sold out within hours and about 34,000 are expected to pack into the Maksimir Stadium in the Croatian capital for the game, although away supporters have been banned for the tie and the return leg in Belgrade over security concerns.
“The event goes beyond sports as it is an historic first match between the two nations since their independence,” said Robert Matteoni, a Croatian sports journalist.
A complex history of relations between the Balkan neighbors, marked by the brutal internecine fighting of the 1991-1995 war that claimed an estimated 20,000 lives, was an added motivation for both countries, he said.
Matteoni’s view is shared by many fans, who say that any sporting encounters between Croatia and Serbia still have a significant emotional charge.
“As long as we live, these will never be only pure sports events,” said Bobo, a 49-year-old member of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore “Bad Blue Boys” fans, many of whom joined the Croatian police and army during the conflict.
Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1991 from the former Yugoslavia sparked the war, but many believe that the conflict was heralded on May 13, 1990, when Dinamo fans stood up against the Serb-controlled Yugoslav police, who looked on as visiting Red Star Belgrade supporters ripped apart the Maksimir Stadium.
During the riot, Dinamo’s Zvonimir Boban became a hero for Croatian nationalists by kung-fu kicking a police officer who was beating a home fan with a truncheon.
Ties between the neighbors have gradually improved since the end of the conflict, but sports events are still considered high-risk.
Croatia captain Darijo Srna has described the game as his “most difficult match,” while Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic said: “This is not only just about points ... It’s about rivalry, prestige — and about something that will mean a lot more to some fans than to us players.”
European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, will be closely monitoring the game and the return leg on Sept. 6 after warning both countries’ soccer federations about the need to tackle hooliganism.
Croatia and Serbia have been fined several times because of violence and racist behavior involving their fans.
Bruno, a founder member of the Bad Blue Boys, said banning visiting fans was the “only logical move” because there would inevitably be incidents if Serbia supporters were present.
However, the head of a moderate fans group, Krunoslav Grlevic, said he feared there would still be anti-Serb chanting at the ground.
With emotions running high, players and officials in both countries have tried to ease tensions.
“We are fully aware of our responsibility ... our behavior and messages that we will send can significantly influence the atmosphere in the stands,” Croatia coach Igor Stimac said. “The most important thing is that we behave as sportsmen.”
His Serbia counterpart, Sinisa Mihajlovic, agreed.
“It is football and not war that awaits us in Zagreb. We are not afraid, but we have respect, since [Croatia] are an excellent team,” the former Yugoslavia international said.
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