When Croatia and Serbia meet tomorrow night at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, the three points on offer for World Cup qualification in Group A are a mere subplot as the two nations meet for the first time since 1999.
The tie has already been dubbed the ‘match of the decade’ by the media and that’s hardly a surprise given the political and historical nature of the two countries especially as the memories of the war are still fresh.
34,000 tickets were sold within hours of the game being announced and although away fans (Serbia) have been banned there are still massive security concerns.
Croatia’s declaration of independence in June 1991 from the former Yugoslavia sparked the four-year war and claimed an estimated 20,000 lives with both sides claiming atrocities were committed on each other.
Many believe that the catalyst for this conflict began in the Maksimir Stadium on May 13, 1990 though. In a league match, Zagreb and Red Star supporters rioted and Dinamo midfielder Zvonimir Boban became a hero for Croatian nationalists by kung-fu kicking a police officer who was beating a home fan with a truncheon.
Here in the America it’s almost impossible to imagine just how horrific those 4 years were as families, neighbors, towns and villages were split apart.
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.”
One man who lived and played through the conflict was Sinisa Mihajlovic, the legendary hard man who kicked opponents almost as hard as his stunning free kicks.
Now the head coach of Serbia, this must read piece takes you inside his head and to the time when teammates became enemies.
Relationships between the two countries has gradually improved over the last few years but this is till considered a high risk match as Balkan football is still heavily linked to ultra-nationalist hooligans.
UEFA will be closely monitoring the game and the return leg on September 6 after warning both countries’ football federations about the need to tackle hooliganism.
I for one hope that tomorrow night we’re talking about a fantastic atmosphere and an even better game of football and nothing else.