Croatia defeat Serbia 2-0 in ‘historic’ game

Croatia on Friday defeated Serbia 2-0 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.

The match was played amid the frenetic cheering of some 34,000 fans of the Croatia team known as “Vatreni” or “The Fiery Ones” at the Maksimir Stadium.

Virtually all the supporters were either dressed in Croatia’s distinctive red and white chequerboard pattern jerseys or wrapped up in Croatian flags.

The win brought Croatia closer to qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil while radically reducing Serbia’s chances.

Serbian fans were banned from attending the match – as are Croatia supporters for the return leg in Belgrade on September 6 – following an agreement between the two countries’ football federations to curb crowd trouble.

Players and officials from both countries repeatedly tried to ease tensions, urging fans to cheer with “dignity” without resorting to insults.

However, despite police threats that they would stop the match if fans resorted to anti-Serb chanting, insults could have been heard at the start of the match as well as occasionally on the streets and in trams ahead of the tie.

The insults, including chants “Kill a Serb!,” stopped shortly after the first goal scored in the 23rd minute by Mario Mandzukic.

No major incidents were reported during the high-risk fixture that was held amid tight security measures

Serbia started well but Croatia’s Mario Mandzukicput the home side ahead in the 23rd minute after a mistake by Serbian defender Aleksandar Kolarov.

Fourteen minutes later Ivica Olic scored the second goal after being set up by captain Darijo Srna.

After the break Serbia were playing more decisively, mustering a few chances, but Stipe Pletikosa’s good defensive work kept them at bay.

“I’m delighted! It was a great match that we’ve been awaiting for so long,” Sinisa Tomac, a 23-year-old student, who watched the game along with some 2,000 other fans on a giant screen at the capital’s main square, told AFP.

After the match celebrations continued at the square as well as throughout the capital and in the rest of the country.

“We are half way to Brazil. I already forgot this match … We are facing another one in three days … We have to prove this superiority, stability, discipline,” Croatia coach Igor Stimac told national television.

Croatia play Wales on Tuesday.

Stimac acknowledged he knew this game would be a “hard” one.

“Serbia are an exceptional opponent that are developing. They have young, talented players who will mature.”

His Serbian counterpart Sinisa Mihajlovic said that his players lost to a “better and a more experienced team”.

“We approached the match with a certain fear … But we go on, there are still five matches to be played. Now we are preparing for Scotland (on Tuesday) and I hope that we will win,” he told Serbia’s private Prva television.

“Croatians are patriots and love football in general, but this is a different match. It has an additional emotional weight due to war,” Tomislav Curic, a Croatian living in Vienna who joined a group of friends for the match, told AFP.

The 30-year-old was summing up the views of many that the fixture was steeped in history, culture and recent conflict.

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 (1700 GMT) kick-off.

During the 1991-1995 war Croatia fought against its rebel Serbs, backed by the Belgrade regime, who opposed its independence from 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.

Police introduced stricter controls at borders and on all transport routes into Zagreb in case any Serbian fans attempted 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 – were widely seen as a forerunner to the conflict a year later.

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