Tight security for historic Croatia, Serbia game
ZAGREB (AFP) –
Croatia and Serbia meet on Friday in a highly charged World Cup qualifier — the first between the two former foes as independent nations since the bloody 1990s war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
Croatia fans geared up for the match on a sunny but cold morning in Zagreb, with those who failed to secure a ticket for the game at the Maksimir Stadium expected to watch on a giant screen in the capital’s main Ban Josip Jelacic square.
Several dozen, mostly young people from all over the country, had already secured their spots in the square by 11:00 am (1000 GMT), many of them dressed in Croatia’s distinctive red and white chequerboard pattern jerseys.
“This is a special match. We were at war,” Goran Vukic, a 25-year-old student from the coastal town of Split, told AFP, summing up the views of many that the fixture was steeped in history, culture and recent conflict.
Serbia fans have been banned from attending the match — and Croatia supporters for the return leg in Belgrade on September 6 — following an agreement between the two countries’ football federations to curb crowd trouble.
The build-up to the match has dominated the media in both countries for weeks and has even prompted some schools in both countries to shorten afternoon classes because of the 6:00 pm kick-off.
“Today, the Maksimir stadium will be the scene of a football battle that for many will be more than a pure game due to bloody history of ties between two nations,” the Serbian daily Blic said.
The two countries fought each other between 1991 and 1995 after Croatia declared independence, a move fiercely opposed by Serbs, who were against the break-up of the Yugoslav federation.
Relations between the two neighbours have gradually improved since then but sports events involving their teams remain high-risk, particularly with Balkan football still linked to ultra-nationalist hooligans.
Serbia’s team, who arrived in Zagreb on Thursday amid tight security, had a request to hold a public training session turned down over security concerns.
Newspapers played on the fact that national pride was at stake.
“With a victory you will become a legend!” read a front page headline of Croatia’s influential Jutarnji List daily, showing a photograph of Croatian midfielder Luka Modric surrounded by some of the 5,000 fans who attended training on Thursday.
The Sportske Novosti daily said that Croatia — known as “Vatreni” or “The Fiery Ones” — had already “knocked down more powerful squads at Maksimir” referring notably to the 2006 victory over England.
“Serbia is not in that rank but they are our main opponent,” the daily said.
Croatia coach Igor Stimac, however, was still cautious, despite his side lying second on goal difference in Group A to Belgium, and a full six points clear of Serbia.
“Croatia are a better team, we are aware of that, but it does not mean anything. All outcomes are possible over the 90 minutes,” he said.
His Serbian counterpart Sinisa Mihajlovic admitted that Croatia were favourites, given their experience and home advantage, but he added: “It does not have to be decisive”.
Police have introduced stricter controls at borders and on all transport routes into Zagreb in case any Serbian fans try to attend the sell-out fixture at a ground infamous for a riot in May 1990 between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade fans.
The disturbances — involving hard-core hooligans — are widely seen as a forerunner to the conflict a year later.
Police meanwhile threatened to halt Friday’s match if fans resort to anti-Serbian chanting.
Players and officials in both countries have repeatedly tried to ease tensions urging fans to cheer with “dignity” without resorting to insults.