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Croats and Serbs settle old scores - but this time on a football ground

The last time teams from Zagreb and Belgrade played each other at football, back in 1990, the fixture led to rampant violence in the stands and all but unleashed the bitter wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia. Last night, for the first time since the end of the fighting, the old Dynamo team from Zagreb (now renamed "Croatia") ventured into the lion's den to play the away leg of a European championship qualifier against Partizan Belgrade.

Any fears of a renewed explosion of violence were misplaced, however. It was a timid affair that ended in a 1-0 victory for Partizan snatched in the closing minutes.

In one way, the match was the latest tentative sign of progress in Serb- Croat relations and a hint of a more normal future to come. In another, though, it was simply an illustration of how screwy ethnic politics have become in the Balkans after four years of fighting.

The Croatian team did not so much burst into Belgrade as crawl in, keeping a low profile at the Hotel Intercontinental away from the centre of town. There were 78 of them - the players, the administrative staff, a clutch of Croatian journalists and a sizeable private police force to guard against trouble.

Violent clashes between supporters did not materialise - for the simple reason that no Croatian supporters were foolhardy to come along for the ride. At the stadium, the Croatian players were greeted with abuse, and although they were the stronger team looked too scared to take up any chances at goal.

So was this a sports event, or a surreal exercise in Balkan politics? "Obviously, there's no way this can be a simple football match," said one Partizan supporter, Emir Kurtovic.

Mr Kurtovic embodied the craziness of the whole affair. He was not a Belgrader at all, but had travelled up from Novi Pazar - emphasising the extent to which this match was a contest between Serbia and Croatia rather than just Belgrade and Zagreb. But he was also a Muslim, ostensibly lending his voice to the Serb national cause. The postwar Balkans have become a very confused place.

The confusion was even more evident on field. Croatia Zagreb's star player, Robert Prosinecki, used to play for Red Star Belgrade and helped them win the European Cup in 1991. On the Belgrade side, goalkeeper Ivica Kralj has featured in the Zagreb newspapers over the past few days because he is said to be an ethnic Croat.

Such paradoxes make a mockery of the sort of nationalist sentiments that fuelled the 1990 game between Dynamo and Red Star at Zagreb's Maximir stadium. On that occasion, the Belgrade supporters broke down barriers, provoking pitched battles that spilled on to the pitch and into the streets outside. The referee never got a chance to start the game.

Anti-government demonstrators flung hundreds of shoes over the heads of riot police towards Slobodan Milosevic, the outgoing Serbian President who was formally sworn in as president of the Yugoslav Republic yesterday. The demonstrators used the shoes as a symbol of the number of Serbs who have walked out of the country during his rule.