Football: National pride at stake for Croatia

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ARSENAL'S NEW striker Davor Suker will lead Croatia's attack in tonight's Euro 2000 qualifier against Yugoslavia - a match that has added significance because of the four-year conflict between the two countries in the early Nineties.

Suker and his team-mates will play in front of 70,000 fiercely partisan Yugoslav fans in the first match between the two nations since the war. Due to the tensions very few Croatian fans are expected to attend the match at the Red Star stadium in Belgrade. In the past there have been violent clashes between Serbs and Croatians

Indeed, the Croatia captain, Zvonimir Boban, the Milan midfielder, became a hero to his countrymen when in 1990 he attacked a policeman who was beating Croatia Zagreb fans during a riot in a match against Red Star Belgrade.

Both coaches admit there is more riding on the result than just points towards qualification for the finals next year. "We shouldn't hide it. This won't be just sport," said Miroslav Blazevic, the Croatia coach. "Every victory of the Croatian team is a victory for their people."

Vujadin Boskov, the Yugoslav coach, admitted that huge prestige is at stake. "We don't want this to become a political game, but the circumstances are such that it has already been branded as a match for the national pride," said Boskov. "Whoever wins will have something to be proud of in front of their nation."

Yugoslavia lead Group Eight with nine points, a point ahead of Croatia and with a game in hand. The game was originally scheduled for 27 March, but was postponed because of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia will be led by the Fiorentina striker Predrag Mijatovic and the former Aston Villa forward Savo Milosevic, but will be without Vladimir Jugovic, Dejan Savicevic and their captain, Dragan Stojkovic. Lazio's striker Alen Boksic is doubtful for Croatia but Igor Stimac, the Derby defender, should play.

The match could add to the political turmoil in Serbia where there is growing pressure on the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stand down. There have been reports of Milosevic's supporters buying tickets for the game to thwart possible anti-government demonstrations during the match. Booing during the national anthem has become standard practice during Yugoslavia matches.

Red Star Belgrade fans are to boycott the match, because both Milosevic's Yugoslavia and Croatia "are our enemies". Instead, they are to attend an anti-government rally.