Croatia 2 Serbia 0 match report: peace breaks
out in World Cup Qualifier as Croatia win pitch battle in the Balkans

This was a settling of scores of epic proportions between two nations who two decades ago were at war

Zagreb

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London