All the talk of bridge-building, and all the promises that this would be an encounter of friendship, dissipated before a ball had even been kicked.
As the Serbian national anthem rang out around the Maksimir Stadium, a tremendous din of boos was augmented with chants of “Vukovar! Vukovar!”, referencing the Croatian city that suffered shelling and massacres at the hands of Serb forces during the Croatian War of Independence.
Giant flags that stretched around all four sides of the stadium were unveiled, bearing the slogan: “Through the rough times and through angry fights we defended our homes with honour. The ones who defended our land didn’t die in vain. Here in our land our flag is flying.”
Many footballing encounters come adorned with hyperbolic epithets about their immense significance beyond the pitch. In few cases are the claims so justified as with this game in Europe’s Group A, in which Wales and Scotland are also drawn.
A hoarding at the side of the pitch informed spectators that they were watching a 2014 Fifa World Cup Brazil Qualifier. But this was so much more than that.
Dominating both the news and sports pages in Croatia and Serbia for the past few weeks, this was a settling of scores of epic proportions, both between two nations who two decades ago were at war, and between two managers who have their own, bitter personal history. As the game kicked off, one stand launched into a rousing “Kill! Kill”, to be answered by the other side of the ground: “The Serbs!”
Away fans had been banned from the stadium to prevent violence, and there was a heavy police presence in both Belgrade and Zagreb as the two countries came to a halt for two hours to watch the game.
A hulking concrete structure whose stands are mismatched in size and perforated with vast gaps, the Maksimir is not designed to create a cauldron of intimidation, but this did not put off the Croatia fans, who yelled, shrieked and bellowed to create extraordinary waves of noise to roar their team on in the first meeting with Serbia in its current form. To the probable relief of the city’s police, the Croatian side were in full control of the game from the 22nd minute, when they took the lead after Mario Mandzukic tapped in a cross from Ivica Olic.
The Croats doubled their lead after Olic turned in a wonderful free-kick whipped into the box by Darijo Srna.
The Serbian team, which featured Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov of Manchester City but was largely made up of inexperienced young players, appeared overawed by the occasion and the atmosphere and never really looked liked getting back into the game.
It was 78 minutes into the match before the Serbs had their first real chance, with Stipe Pletikosa parrying an effort from Dusan Tadic, and following up with a save from Filip Dordevic, who should have scored.
The chance missed, Croatia were able to sit back and soak up the pressure as the excitement on the pitch, if not in the stands, fizzled out.
In the run-up to the match both sides had tried to diffuse the tension between two nations with a history not just of war but also mistrust
The two managers have their own personal, dark history. Serbia’s Sinisa Mihajlovic and Croatia’s Igor Stimac clashed as players during a 1991 encounter between Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade as the war was breaking out. Both ended up being sent off after an unsavoury trade of insults that ended with Mihajlovic saying years later that Stimac remained the “one man I could strangle with my bare hands”.
In the end, though, last night’s events on the pitch could not live up to the passions swirling in both Balkan countries. The game was no classic, but it was also not marred by violence or aggression. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, responsible for the soft red card against Manchester United’s Nani during their Champions League clash with Real Madrid, was not required to make any difficult decisions. At the final whistle, there was even what appeared to be a heartfelt hug between Stimac and Mihajlovic, perhaps a sign that football could eventually serve as a conciliatory force.
The Croatian players embarked on a victory lap around the pitch to the adoring cheers of fans who celebrated victory over the old enemy, as well as what looks like a certain path to the World Cup in Brazil next year. For Serbia, the road to Brazil is all but over, but that will be a secondary concern if they can beat Croatia in the return fixture, on 6 September in Belgrade.