Team spirit soars as Serbs foresee end to sanctions

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DRAGAN DZAJIC, the one-time international football great and the manager of Red Star Belgrade, has two wishes. One is for the harsh sanctions imposed against rump Yugoslavia to be eased, so that his team can return to the world sporting stage after a two-year absence. The other, although less ambitious, is just as intense. 'My wish,' a smiling Mr Dzajic said yesterday, 'is that the first game we play is against Manchester United.'

Whether Manchester United can squeeze in a game against an old rival is unclear. But Mr Dzajic's desire to return to the international arena is likely to be realised soon. Following the arrival in Serbia yesterday of the first international volunteers, who will watch to see if Serbia has closed its border to the Bosnian Serbs, the expectation is that the embargo against Belgrade will be relaxed. International sporting links and commercial flights could be restored in weeks.

The move, which needs approval from the United Nations Security Council, would reward Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, for blockading his former clients in Bosnia. Mr Milosevic, once described as the 'Butcher of the Balkans', broke with the Serbian warlords in Bosnia after they rejected an international peace plan to divide the country between the Serbs and a federation of Muslims and Croats.

The West is mistrustful of Mr Milosevic and has demanded proof of the blockade before sanctions are lifted. After weeks of haggling over the mission, Mr Milosevic agreed to allow 135 civilian volunteers to work under the control of the Serbian police. Although this falls short of the West's original demands, the head of the mission, a retired Swedish General, Bo Pellnas, said the international community should reward Serbia.

For the past two years Serbs have been led to believe that sanctions, not the policies of the government, were to blame for their ills. Once sanctions were lifted, they were told, things would return to the way they were. But, in the case of Red Star Belgrade, it may not be the case.

Red Star fans still cling to memories of when their team beat Marseille to win the 1990-91 European Cup. The team had no chance to repeat the performance. In June 1992, because of Belgrade's role in the Bosnian war, the world imposed sanctions and banned Yugoslav teams from international competitions. The sanctions have frozen the club's assets abroad and starved it of revenue at home. At least 12 top players have joined European clubs. For those who remained, the inability to play international football has dulled their skills. When the club returns to international play, it will be a shadow of its old self. 'Generally speaking, we will never be what we might have been,' Mr Dzajic admitted.

Nevertheless, the prospect of returning to the international sporting fold is important to Serbs and Montenegrins. It will be a psychological boost to a country that never understood, let alone accepted, pariah status. This is reflected in a message written on the wall of the club house. Amid photographs of the most important victories in the team's 1990- 1991 championship season, a message reads: 'The reason why sanctions were imposed on us - unprecedented football terror'.

Like rump Yugoslavia, it may take Red Star years to recover from sanctions. But Mr Dzajic is still optimistic. 'The name that we built cannot be erased just like that, and I am positive that the clubs which play against us after this embargo is lifted won't have an easy time,' he said. 'Even Manchester United.'

NEW YORK - The big powers on the Security Council introduced resolutions yesterday easing sanctions against Yugoslavia for 100 days and tightening the embargo against the Bosnian Serbs for their rejection of a peace plan to end the war in Bosnia, Reuter reports.