Croats, Serbs to meet in highly charged qualifierBy DUSAN STOJANOVIC , Associated Press
Mar. 21, 2013 9:44 AM ET
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Security will be tight and UEFA will be watching closely when Croatia and Serbia meet in a highly charged World Cup qualifier, their first match as independent states since the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The game Friday between the bitter Balkan rivals and wartime foes at a packed Maksimir stadium in the Croatian capital of Zagreb will be policed by about 1,500 officers deployed to prevent possible outbursts of nationalism.
Fearing clashes between rival hooligans, Croatia has tightened security in and around the stadium and on the border between the two countries to enforce a ban on Serbian fans traveling to the match that was agreed between the two countries' football federations. The ban will also forbid Croatian fans from attending the return match in Serbia in September.
Coaches and politicians have tried to defuse ethnic tensions, and Europe's football governing body will closely monitor the game for any possible trouble. UEFA has twice in two years warned Croatian and Serbian officials that it could ban their teams from international competitions if there are any more acts of violence or racial chanting by hooligans.
"Support us with your love for us and not with your hatred for our opponent," Croatia coach Igor Stimac appealed to his team's fans. "We are feeling tensions, but only because of the importance of the game. This is a football match and not a war. Let the better team win."
Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic said "this is a derby primarily because of our (wartime) past," adding "we'll try to enjoy playing the match. After all, football is only a game."
Cordons of anti-riot Croatian police greeted the Serbia players when they landed at Zagreb airport Thursday.
"Considering the rivalry between our two countries, this is not an ordinary match," Serbia defender Branislav Ivanovic said. "They are favorites, but the pressure from high expectations is on Croatia."
Croatia and Belgium share the lead in Group A, six points ahead of third-place Serbia. A loss would virtually end Serbia's hopes of automatically qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Scotland, Wales and Macedonia are also in the group.
Croatia's midfield will be led by Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric while in-form Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic is part of an attack that will come up against a defense, considered the strongest part of Serbia's team.
"We are all aware that Croatia is a better team than Serbia," Stimac said. "But we have to prove it on the field. We will attack from the first minute."
The abilities of the players on the field, however, have been overshadowed by the tensions building off it.
Police have warned Croatian fans that they could halt the match if they resort to anti-Serbian chants. They also said that if Serbian fans sneak into the stadium breaching the ban, they could face up to 30 days in jail.
"Organizers have to first warn the supporters against the chanting, and then the match can be interrupted either briefly or for good," Croatian police official Krunislav Borovec said.