Skip to main content

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

By Tom McGowan, CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
Croatia coach Igor Stimac has implored his team's fans to not let history overshadow their 2014 World Cup qualifier with Serbia on Friday. Croatia coach Igor Stimac has implored his team's fans to not let history overshadow their 2014 World Cup qualifier with Serbia on Friday.
HIDE CAPTION
Stimac's plea
Links to the past
Marvellous Modric
Branislav's brawn
Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb
UEFA sanctions
Serbia's shame
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
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

(CNN) -- 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.

PFA chairman: Serbia should be banned
Exclusive: Boateng on racist abuse

"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.

"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.

Former Polish striker condemns racism
Ruud Gullit: Euros will confront racism

"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.

"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.

Read: Football grapples with anti-Semitism storm

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.

Stimac and Mihajlovic have buried a 20-year feud by meeting and agreeing to lead by a positive example
James Montague

"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."

Read: Meet Italy's proud football racists

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."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Football Club
Be part of CNN's coverage of European Champions League matches and join the social debate.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
The 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy, which claimed 96 lives, brought the red and the blue halves of Liverpool together.
CNN's Don Riddell says the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy has caused irreparable damage to the families of the 96 victims and the survivors.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
The Champions league trophy stands on show during the draw for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions league at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon on March 21, 2014. AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Two European heavyweights will collide in the Champions League semifinals after Bayern Munich and Real Madrid were drawn together in Switzerland.
March 24, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
West Bromwich Albion's French striker Nicolas Anelka looks on during the English Premier League football match between West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United at The Hawthorns in West Bromwich, central England, on January 1, 2014.
England prides itself on being the home of football, but is the nation dysfunctional in dealing with racist abuse?
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1339 GMT (2139 HKT)
In a city where football is a religion, Liverpool and England striker Daniel Sturridge is fast becoming a deity.
French former football player Zinedine Zidane reacts during the gala football 'Match Against Poverty' organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on March 4, 2014 in Bern.
Some of the biggest names in football lined up for a charity match, but CNN's Tom McGowan wonders if they can help beat poverty.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
"Everyone is scared about war -- they are very nervous," former Ukraine football star Oleg Luzhny says of the rising tensions with Russia.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1807 GMT (0207 HKT)
Bayern Munich's present success rests on one key decision, chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge tells CNN.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 0922 GMT (1722 HKT)
Neymar
"More than a Club." It is an image Barcelona has carefully cultivated, but could the controversial deal to sign Neymar sour that view?
February 1, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Affectionately known as "the wise man of Hortaleza," Luis Aragones -- who died aged 75 -- left the legacy of helping Spain's ascension to the top.
January 23, 2014 -- Updated 2118 GMT (0518 HKT)
Real Madrid hasn't won the European Champions League in over a decade, but the Spanish club is invincible in one field -- making money.
The naming of the world's best footballer is not all that it seems, says CNN's James Masters.
ADVERTISEMENT