ZAGREB, March 20 (Reuters) - With the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil looming, local bragging rights between Croatia and Serbia will be at stake when the bitter Balkan rivals meet in a potentially explosive Group A qualifier on Friday.
Having long battled problems with hooliganism and racism, both nations want the match, billed as epic and historic by the media, to be trouble-free as much as they crave a win that would boost their pride and their chances of reaching next year’s tournament.
It will be the first time they lock horns as independent countries after the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia, which should take a back seat to entertaining football if efforts by both sets of players and coaches to defuse tension are anything to go by.
“I implore the Croatian fans to back us with their love for the national team and not hatred for our opponents,” Croatia coach Igor Stimac told reporters ahead of the fixture which will be played under tight security in Dinamo Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium.
”All those who turn up should support us in the most dignified manner and if they do, they will put the much-needed wind in our sails to get the result we want in this historic match.
“This is a great chance to show everyone, including FIFA and UEFA, what we are really like. Both teams have the capacity to keep this event a football match and show the world that they are great football nations.”
Stimac’s plea echoed assessments by his Serbian counterpart Sinisa Mihajlovic that those with football at heart should lay the ghosts of a bygone era to rest and let the beautiful game take centre stage.
Among other things, Mihajlovic instructed his players when he took over last May to applaud the national anthems of Serbia’s rivals in every match and said the games against Croatia, with the reverse fixture in Belgrade on Sept. 6, would be no exception.
Both federations have agreed not to take away fans to either match in order to allay fears of crowd trouble.
While they both had to deal with the same kind of adversity in the stands at club and international level, Croatia and Serbia could not have made more contrasting starts to their qualifying campaigns.
The Croatians top the group alongside Belgium on 10 points from four games, with Serbia a distant third on four points from as many matches after a 3-0 home rout by the Belgians followed by a 1-0 loss at southern neighbours Macedonia in October.
Winger Zoran Tosic concurred that even a draw, a creditable result away to Croatia under more favourable circumstances, would probably end Serbia’s hopes of progressing.
“A share of the spoils would leave them firmly in the driving seat and hence we have to come out firing on all cylinders from the off no matter how raucous the atmosphere may be,” he said.
“This will be an entirely new experience for all of us although many of us have played a bunch of derbies at club level because this is going to be a very special game between two teams boasting plenty of excellent players.”
Concurring that Serbia, who have failed to score in any of their games apart from the 6-1 home rout of Wales, have acquired the reputation of a fair-weather team playing well when they are ahead, Tosic stressed the importance of showing will and character on Friday.
”It will be a stern test of our credentials and while we would love to score first in order to gain the psychological edge, it is essential that we keep going for the full 90 minutes no matter what the score is.
“(Croatia midfielder) Luka Modric and (striker) Mario Mandzukic will be a massive threat but we are confident that we can stand our ground and aware that a game like this can be decided by the tiniest details.”
Croatia: Stipe Pletikosa; Darijo Srna, Vedran Corluka, Josip Simunic, Ivan Strinic; Ivan Rakitic, Ognjen Vukojevic, Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar; Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic.
Serbia: Vladimir Stojkovic; Branislav Ivanovic, Neven Subotic, Matija Nastasic, Aleksandar Kolarov; Aleksandar Ignjovski, Zdravko Kuzmanovic; Zoran Tosic, Filip Djuricic, Dusan Tadic; Filip Djordjevic.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)