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Croatia v Serbia: Match of the Decade

“The event goes beyond sports as it is an historic first match between the two nations since their independence” - Robert Matteoni, a prominent Croatian sports journalist.

“As long as we live, these will never be only pure sports events” - Bobo, member of Dinamo Zagreb‘s Bad Blue Boys group.

“This is not only just about points… It’s about rivalry (and) prestige — and about something that will mean a lot more to some fans than to us players” - Serbia goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojkovic.

“I’d like to emphasise that the history between our countries can’t be changed on the pitch, despite our on-field rivalry. We play football. None of us can change the past, but we can influence the future. Now we have to lead by example and put on a great match together, without any scandals” - Croatia’s Darijo Srna.

“We are fully aware of our responsibility… our behaviour and messages that we will send can significantly influence the atmosphere in the stands. The most important thing is that we behave as sportsmen” - Croatia coach, Igor Stimac.

“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. This is a derby primarily because of our (wartime) past. We’ll be going there to enjoy the match. After all, football is only a game” - Serbia coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic.

“We will be treated the same way in Belgrade as the way they are treated here and I wish I had a magic wand to make sure that Serbia’s national anthem is not jeered” - Former Croatia striker, Davor Suker.

“It is a fight for domination in the region” - Former Croatian international, Dario Simic.

“Because of history and the war, there will be no stands for visiting fans” - Croatian football organisation HNS commissioner for security, Zoran Cvrk.

“Never has the HNS been so thoroughly prepared. It is clear that a lot of people’s appetites will not be met, which is not feasible since we received 60,000 requests for tickets online” - Croatia Football secretary, Damir Vrbanovic

It’s normal for any game involving arch-rivals to be accompanied by pre-game talks, but this takes things to a totally different level altogether. Serbia visit Croatia on Friday to play what is likely the game of this decade. This is the first time the 2 neighbours have met after the war, and with Serbia needing to win at all costs to keep their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil alive, the game has all the ingredients of being ‘the ones to watch before you die.’

As it should, the match has gathered enough buzz and threats at the same time. Croatian fans thronged the stadium despite freezing temperatures and unearthly hours to get a chance to catch the match live, while Serbian fans have been barred from attending the game in fear of it culminating into a violent aftermath. Tickets, quite predictably, were sold out a few hours after they were open to buying, and the Serbian team can expect a full-house of vociferous fans backing the home team.

With memories of the war that claimed close to 20,000 lives still fresh in the memory of players and fans, the game promises to be a highly-charged and toughly contested one. A four-year war between the Croatia and then-Yugoslavia is said to be the reason between such hostilities between the neighbours, but there was trouble brewing from much before.

The match between Croatian home team Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in 1990, during which the visiting supporters and the Serb-backed police vandalized the Maksimir Stadium (the same stadium where the World Cup qualifier will be played) is said to have given impetus to the entire conflict. The ties between the 2 countries may have settled down since, but every sporting event associated with the two still carries a great amount of significance and bragging rights for the triumphant. Hooliganism is still rife, and with 2 traditional rivals facing off, the football federation has taken all possible steps to avoid a tragic end to what should be an enthralling game.

As if all this emotional charge was not enough, Sinisa Mihajlovic’s presence as the coach of Serbia adds that extra bit of ‘something special’ to the tie. A dreaded free-kick specialist who was born to a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, Mihajlovic is now a nationalist Serb – but could very well have been a Croatian had he accepted an offer from Dinamo Zagreb.

The former Lazio midfielder recollected in an interview how, when he returned to his old house on the Serbia-Croatia border, he found pictures of him and his family with the eyes cut out and the house itself burned down by the Croatian military. With the result of the game being such an important factor to the game from Serbia’s point of view, the history behind Mihajlovic and his relationship with the rivals makes it a supremely massive game for him, the team, the fans and the entire country.

The hype around the game, before and after, will probably take weeks to die down. And if the game does go down like everyone is hoping, then we could well have a match that will be etched in the history books. Here’s hoping we have a game between two teams hoping to gain bragging rights and keeping honour, and that it does not turn into a violent affair with fans trying to show who is more powerful.

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