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International watch: Tension in Zagreb despite tight security and cautious optimism

As competitive international football resumes across the planet throughout this week and the next, one clash should captivate the minds and hearts of many football fans. The violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the early nineties has, in turn, produced talented independent countries of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Despite deep-rooted religious differences and ethnic hatred, football remains a common ground between them, in which we still identify the styles of these small Balkan nations with that of the glory days of the Yugoslav team that comprised of the best from all across the peninsula. No wonder the Yugoslavia of the bygone age were termed as ‘Brazil of Eastern Europe’.

Times have changed. The horrors of the Yugoslav civil war are still fresh and all the affected nations are carrying the scars till today. In footballing terms, the Croats have leapfrogged Serbia as far as pedigree is concerned. Croatia regularly appear in the world and European stage, yet Serbia are still working hard to be considered a European force. In fact, Friday’s historic clash in Zagreb‘s Maksimir stadium would pit a battle hardened, experienced Croatia against a young and inexperienced Serbian side that is on a rebuilding phase. Yet, both sets of coaches and players have admitted, going into the big game, that pride is at stake in this potentially explosive regional derby, and no team is to be termed favourites.

Man to man, Serbia are outnumbered by their bitter rivals in terms of talent and international exposure. Yet, they have a coach in the form of Sinisa Mihajlovic, who alone has the power to motivate and rally his troops going into the biggest politically charged game of the year. Form-wise, the group standings say it all. Croatia and Belgium are setting the pace in Group A with 10 points, while Serbia are a distant third on 4 points and know that a point away to Croatia, an impressive result for any side in the cauldron that is the Maksimir Stadium, will not be enough for Mihajlovic’s men to progress to the World Cup in 2014. So, the onus is on the away side to take full points in a tense atmosphere sans away support.

Off the field, things look tense though, as it is hard enough to even acknowledge that whatever may be the final result, there will be no trouble both before the game and after. Even though both coaches admit that the violent past should be laid to rest and the two nations should concentrate on football rather than anything else, both Croatia and Serbia are on UEFA’s watch list, as these countries are trying just as hard to eradicate stadium violence and hooliganism, in addition to improving the quality of the Balkan game. Both the federations have agreed in earnest not to send away fans for the March 22 clash in Zagreb and the reverse fixture in Belgrade on September 6, yet nothing can be taken as granted as far as Croat and Serb fans are concerned.

Croatian national coach Igor Stimac and his Serbian counterpart Sinisa Mihajlovic have a violent history during their playing days, with both the players involved in an ugly fracas during the infamous 1991 Yugoslav Cup final that both played in for Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade respectively. Yet, both men, by their own admissions, are ready to shake hands and move forward with dignity and immense national pride.

“I implore the Croatian fans to back us with their love for the national team and not hatred for our opponents,” Croatia coach Igor Stimac told reporters ahead of the fixture. 

“All those who turn up should support us in the most dignified manner and if they do, they will put the much-needed wind in our sails to get the result we want in this historic match.

“This is a great chance to show everyone, including FIFA and UEFA, what we are really like. Both teams have the capacity to keep this event a football match and show the world that they are great football nations.”

In an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, Mihajlovic was quoted as saying,

“It was the most emotive game of my life [The Euro 2000 qualifier between Croatia and Yugoslavia(combination of the states of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo) in Zagreb that finished 2-2 with the latter going through courtesy ]. I accepted the job as coach as I knew that we’d play this game. But so we could shake hands”

You can find the full interview with the former Fiorentina boss here.

Things have moved on since the Balkan war, with both nations trying hard to reconcile, but Friday’s historic encounter will test the resolve of the Croatian football federation in controlling the crowd if things get too passionate during the match or at the time of the singing of the Serbian national anthem. And after 13 years since the two nations last met at the international level, when Serbia were still called Yugoslavia, it remains to be seen how this new generation of Croats and Serbs, players and fans, get on with each other, even if the scars of war are hard to erase.

Amidst the highly charged atmosphere, both the nations, irrespective of the result, have a duty to reconcile the Balkans once again, through the great medium of football, and it is in the interest of both Croatia and Serbia to have two incident-free matches, as these clashes are rare in the international arena and should always be savoured whenever the opportunity comes to playing each other. Uncertainty grows with lack of games between nations that share a bloody past, but playing more often not only improves the surroundings but also eases the mental state of both sets of footballers, as games like these turn boys into men.

“There is no need to hold a motivational speech for this kind of match,” Sinisa Mihajlovic said looking ahead to the game. “We are still not aware of our potential …. I’m convinced that this match could be a turning point in that sense.”

The quote says it all about what it means to play in a Croatia-Serbia tie.

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