Healing wounds of war: Croatia coach calls for 'love' ahead of Serbia tie

Story highlights

  • Croatia to play Serbia in 2014 World Cup qualifier on Friday
  • The match will be the first between the two teams since war ended in 1995
  • Croatia are currently on 10 points, six points ahead of Serbia
  • The coaches of the two teams have called for calm ahead of the match

When Serbia and Croatia take to the field at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium on Friday, memories of a bloody, war-torn history between the neighboring countries will be brought sharply into focus.

The 2014 World Cup qualifying tie will be the first time the two teams have played each other since the break up of the former Yugoslavia and then the Croatian War of Independence, which raged between 1991 and 1995.

The break up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s caused the bloodiest conflict on the European continent since World War II, with an estimated 140,000 people killed.

As the wounds of war continue to heal, Croatia coach Igor Stimac has urged fans not to use the game as an attempt to settle old scores.

"I implore the Croatian fans to back us with their love for the national team and not hatred for our opponents," Stimac, who picked up 53 caps for Croatia between 1990 and 2002, told reporters ahead of the match.

"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.

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"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."

Cursed war

A Croatia victory on Friday would effectively end Serbia's World Cup qualification hopes.

Croatia currently sit second in the group, level on 10 points with leaders Belgium, while Serbia are on four points and would be nine points behind Stimac's side should they lose the much-anticipated game.

Like Stimac, Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic wants his players to inspire passionate support from their fans. And like Stimac, Mihajlovic is keen to move away from the past.

"This game isn't a continuation of the war," the former Yugoslavia player told Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this week.

"We've already witnessed the real, cursed and horrid war and we're still carrying the wounds and the scars.

"This is just a passionate, important football match that stirs up a lot of emotion in people: an important game for our position in the group table and for the continued development of my players.

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"If we win, we'll cut the gap to three points and we're still in the running for qualification."

Both Mihajlovic and Stimac played when Croatia and Yugoslavia were drawn together in the qualifying tournament for Euro 2000.

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The first match in Belgrade in August 1999 was drawn 0-0, while the return fixture in Zagreb later the same year was crucial to both their hopes of reaching the championships in Holland and Belgium.

"The stadium in Zagreb was like a volcano," recalls Mihajlovic, who played in the match, while Stimac missed out. "There were police everywhere.

"There were lots of former teammates who had played alongside each other for Yugoslavia now facing each other. Now no longer on the same side.

"There was a banner there 'Vukovar 1991', the city that was so symbolic of the war," added Mihajlovic, referring to the Croatian city that was heavily damaged during a siege in the conflict.

Vukovar was the birthplace of Mihajlovic, who was the son of a Croatian mother and Serbian father.

These days about one third of Vukovar's population is made up of Serbs, though the two ethnic groups remain segregated.

"All the Serbs will be watching at home; we've had bad experiences in the past when we've tried to watch Serbia games and Croats have come and thrown stones at the cafes we're in," Djordje Macut, president of the town's Council of Serbian Minorities, told the Independent newspaper.

"Every time I went up to take a free-kick or a corner, tension was high," continued Mihajlovic, as he recalled more memories from that Zagreb game in 1990.

"I hit the woodwork twice, once the post, another time the crossbar.

"And I also played a part in the goals from (Pedrag) Mijatovic and (Dejan) Stankovic: 2-2, we qualified, Croatia were knocked out."

Bloody history

Mihajlovic and his team is likely to encounter a similarly vociferous atmosphere at the Maksimir Stadium on Friday. No away supporters will attend either of the World Cup qualifying matches between the two teams.

The Maksimir Stadium has its own bloody history. It was the scene of an infamous encounter between Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and Serbian team Red Star Belgrade in 1990 which saw a riot break out and a number people stabbed and wounded.

Friday's game will serve as a barometer for the mood of fans, with those who remember the conflict and those too young to have witnessed the fighting being brought together.

"I've been to Zagreb and Belgrade and both cities, both countries, view this as something much bigger than football," James Montague, author of When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East, told CNN.

"In the past the game has really been the canary in the mine in terms of the political dynamics on the ground.

"It is a little different now. The older generations, of course, remember the horrors and this is an extension of that in some respects.

"But younger people are different. Few of the players, especially in Serbia, have much experience of life before 1990. For them this is a game.

"It is the people around it that have long memories and remember what was a particularly vicious civil war. Every year the hatred gets a little less."

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Both Stimac and Mihajlovic called for calm ahead of the contest and will be expected to set a dignified tone on Friday, but the two coaches did not always see eye-to-eye during their playing careers.

"Stimac and Mihajlovic have a long dislike of each other, stemming from the 1991 Yugoslav Cup Final between Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade," explained Montague.

"It took place just as war was breaking out. They both got sent off bad mouthing each other. They have both said ridiculously nationalistic things in the past.

"But the two have buried a 20-year feud by meeting and agreeing to lead by a positive example. It's up to everyone there on Friday night to follow suit."