Croatia v Serbia the rematch: memories of riots, battles and war crimes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Eighteen years ago they were engaged in one of Europe's most bloody conflicts since the end of the Second World War. Now, they meet on the football pitch for the first time as independent states

Vukovar

It was in the Maksimir Stadium that the tremors that presaged the Yugoslav wars first erupted, as a mass riot broke out between fans of Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in May 1990. With fists flying and knives drawn, dozens were injured in a brawl between the two sets of fans, many of whom would soon be facing each other on real battlefields.

It is in the same stadium tomorrow night that Serbia and Croatia will face each other for the first time on the football pitch as independent nations in a World Cup qualifier that is overlaid with memories of riots, battles and war crimes.

Football-mad at the best of times, there is much more at stake than the chance to edge closer to a place at next year’s World Cup. Serbian fans have been banned from the stadium in an attempt to avert violence, just like their Croatian counterparts will be when the two teams meet in the return leg in Belgrade in September.

In Vukovar, a town on the border with Serbia, the tension is palpable. It saw heavy fighting under seven years of Serb occupation before it was handed back to Croatia in 1998. The population is still mixed, with Serbs making up about one third of the inhabitants, but the two ethnic groups live segregated lives.

Sparks have flown in recent months as the Serbian population fights to have the town’s street signs written bilingually, and Serbs say they will not dare to leave their homes during tonight’s game for fear of being attacked by the local Croat population.

“All the Serbs will be watching at home; we’ve had bad experiences in the past when we’ve tried to watch Serbia games and Croats have come and thrown stones at the cafés we’re in,” says Djordje Macut, president of the town’s Council of Serbian Minorities over a beer at Mornar, a smoke-filled café. “And those times, we weren’t even playing Croatia.”

Mornar looks like many other cafés in the city, but a closer look reveals it to be emphatically a Serbian one, with Serbian news on the television and waitresses serving Jelen, a Serb brew not available elsewhere in Croatia.

“Croatia is the country in which we live, but Serbia is our homeland,” says Srdjan Milakovic, a Serb community leader and local councillor. “We’ve lived here for centuries, we have as much right as anyone else to be here.”

One of Vukovar’s most famous Serbian sons is Sinisa Mihajlovic, the current Serbia manager, who was born to a Croatian mother and Serbian father in the city. He gave his own view of the tragedy of Vukovar, which was levelled by Serb-led forces during a three-month siege in 1991, in a recent interview with the Italian media. “I saw fellow Serbians killed, our cities razed to the ground, hospitals, schools and civilians bombed: all blown away,” he recalled. “My best friend destroyed my home. When my parents left Vukovar... my uncle, a Croatian and the brother of my mother, phoned her and said: ‘Why did you leave? You should have stayed here. That way I would have killed your husband, that dirty Serbian piece of s**t.’”

Croats have a very different view of who was responsible for the devastation of Vukovar. Today, posters demanding a “Croatian Vukovar” decry the moves to introduce Serbian Cyrillic street signs in the city, an EU requirement given that Serbs form more than 33 per cent of the population. Thousands of Croats have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks, saying that in a city that suffered so much at the hands of Serbs, Cyrillic streets signs would rub salt into the wounds.

“The people that did this are still free, they are still living among us, and nobody talks about it,” says 26-year-old Kristijan Drobina, a Croat who works at a memorial complex at Ovcara, where more than 200 Croats were massacred by Serb militias in 1991. “The equivalent of two atomic bombs fell on Vukovar and... If we don’t talk about the past we are condemned to repeat it in the future.”

“People say all Serbs are aggressors, that we were responsible for everything,” counters Mr Milakovic. “There is always tension here... we feel insecure in our own city. But the more pressure they put on us the more we want to stand up for our rights and identity.

Serbia’s manager Mihajlovic, who has not returned to Vukovar since the war, has called for tonight’s game to be played “in the right spirit” and for the two nations to “offer a hand of friendship”. But given his outspoken views on who was responsible for the conflict this is a tall order, especially with his personal history with Croatia’s manager, Igor Stimac.

In 1991, as war was breaking out, the pair were involved in an altercation during a game between Mihajlovic’s Red Star Belgrade and Stimac’s Hajduk Split, during which the Croatian allegedly told the Serb he hoped all his family would be killed in the conflict.

After a number of subsequent vicious challenges, both players were sent off. Stimac denies making the comments, but the pair continued public sniping for years afterwards, with Mihajlovic saying that Stimac was “the only person I could strangle with my bare hands”.

Mihajlovic also played in Zagreb in 1999 for a Yugoslavia team that met Croatia for a place in the European Championships, and nearly caused a riot after crossing himself in front of a banner that read “Vukovar 1991”.

The game finished in a draw, and he says the opportunity to relive that atmosphere was one of the main reasons he agreed to do his current job. “I’d willingly give up three years of my life to be able to play in it,” he says

While both coaches have been under pressure from Uefa and Fifa to calm tensions, neither has been particularly helpful. Stimac travelled to the home town of Croatian general Ante Gotovina in November to celebrate the soldier’s release from prison in The Hague, after the appeals court of the tribunal into the Yugoslav wars found him not guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Stimac announced that he wanted Gotovina to come on to the pitch and kick the ball before the game with Serbia, a proposal that was unsurprisingly abandoned.

Zdravko Mamic, the executive director of Dinamo Zagreb and one of the most powerful people in Croatian football, added to the tension by directing abuse at an ethnic Serb minister last month. He said it was an “insult to the Croatian brain” that Zelko Jovanovic is Croatia’s Minister of Education and Sport. “When he looks at you, blood squirts from his eyes,” said Mr Mamic. “Looking at his smile, one can only see teeth ready for slaughter.” He is being investigated by police and could face a jail sentence for inciting racial hatred.

While the majority of Croatians have condemned Mr Mamic’s words, it is clear that today’s game is no ordinary football match.

Samir Mazic, a 40-year-old Croatia fan from Osijek, not far from Vukovar, has travelled to almost every Croatia game since 2006, and complains that the obsession over the game with Serbia has little to do with football.

“When we played Macedonia recently there were only a few thousand people in the stadium,” he says. “Now it’s Serbia and people are sleeping in the street overnight trying to get a ticket. The majority of people don’t care about football, it’s about hatred.”

Among the young urban elites of Zagreb and Belgrade today, the war is long forgotten. Serbian theatres and pop stars tour to Zagreb, while for Croatian students, there is nothing cooler than taking a weekend trip to Belgrade. But for many Croats and Serbs, the violence and hatred simmers not far beneath the surface.

Chants during tonight’s game are likely to include “Kill, kill, kill the Serbs” and “For my motherland, I am ready,” a controversial song linked to the Ustasa, the Second World War Croatian fascist movement.

Goran Gunjevic, a basketball coach from Osijek, says: “Instead of a celebration it’s always about hatred. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis and for a few hours it will allow people to forget that they can’t pay their bills, that they aren’t eating well. Instead they can focus all their attention on hating the Serbs.”

Croatia is due to join the EU in July, and with a worsening economic situation analysts warn of a resurgence of radical nationalist ideologies. After years of hope that entry into the European family would spell the end of the country’s troubles, Croatia now joins at a time when the union itself is in deep crisis. “There are no fundamental disagreements between the left- and right-wing parties, and no real idea of how to get out of the economic crisis, which means an increasing appeal to extreme ideologies to rally people,” says Zoran Kurelic, a professor of at Zagreb University.

“Events such as the football match are dangerous. You have 30,000 people inside a stadium who are disenchanted with life, and it can be a very explosive situation.”

In such a context, the timing of tonight’s game is worrying. Victory for Croatia would all but ensure their qualification for the World Cup, while Serbia must win to have any chance. But with emotions running so high, even the prospect of competing in Brazil is a secondary concern for some, with a win for either side a potential spark for violence.

“Perhaps it would be best if it’s a draw,” says Mr Macut of the Council of Serbian Minorities, with a resigned sigh. “Serbia won’t qualify for the World Cup, but at least we’ll be assured of a quiet night in Vukovar.”

In brief: A history of Serb/Croat relations

Serbs are an Orthodox Christian people who spent 400 years under Ottoman rule, while Croats are Catholics who were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Yugoslavia was formed immediately after World War I following the break-up of this empire. It merged the Kingdom of Serbia with the State of Slovenes and Croatia. Here the Serb/Croat resentment began to take hold, for the early Yugoslavia had a Serbian king and army.

In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazis and the union was dismantled. In its place came a fascist state covering Croatia and much of Bosnia that was run from Berlin, which went on to massacre huge numbers of Serbs and Jews, and forced more than 200,000 to convert to Catholicism. The remainder of the country was controlled by a combination of German, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Italian troops. There began a national liberation war pitting Communist-led Yugoslav republicans led by Josip Broz Tito and Serb-oriented royalists under Dragan Mihailjovic against the occupiers. After the war, Tito reformed the union as a Communist Federation of six equal republics - Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

After the fall of Communism in 1991, Croatia elected its own government. Croatia had a 600,000-strong Serb community who had fled the Ottoman occupation, and, mindful of the pain inflicted on them during the Second World War, they rose up against Croatia with support from Serbia. The Croatian war of independence ran from March 1991 until November 1995 and killed tens of thousands. Both sides have filed genocide lawsuits against the other.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Caption competition
Caption competition

Bleacher Report

Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?