Zagreb (Reuters) - European handball championship (EHF Euro 2018) hosts Croatia take on neighbours and bitter Balkan rivals Serbia with passion already running high ahead of the potentially explosive clash in the opening round of the 16-team tournament on Friday.
Former Olympic and world champions Croatia are aiming to add the only title missing from their trophy cabinet and judging by the build-up to their match with underdogs Serbia, there will be no love lost when they lock horns in Split’s Spaladium Arena.
Former Croatia coach Slavko Goluza, who was in charge when Serbia beat their old foes in the 2012 tournament’s semi-final in Belgrade, made it clear the Serbians should not expect a red-carpet reception.
“We certainly won’t applaud them on the terraces but I don’t expect anyone to hurl coins or plastic bottles as was the case in Belgrade,” Goluza told the regional N1 television.
“I am sure the players too don’t see this match like any other, they are very emotional but they will need to control their emotions on the court.”
Centre back Stefan Vujic, who will make his competitive debut for Serbia against his native Croatia after changing allegiance in November, also expects a hostile atmosphere.
“There will probably be insults from the terraces but I will not pay any attention to that,” said the 26-year old from Rijeka, who joined the Serbians after failing to break through as a regular starter for Croatia.
“I am sure the home fans will not invade the court to attack us amid the tight security and they will certainly do themselves no favours if they cause trouble.”
The other Group A fixture offers another mouth-watering clash with pride and bragging rights at stake, albeit devoid of such tension, as Sweden take on Iceland in a Scandinavian derby.
Group B also kicks off on Friday as world champions France start their campaign with a tricky game against Norway, aiming to retrieve the title they have won three times and relinquished to Germany in the 2016 tournament.
The French, who also have six world and two Olympic titles, should have a relatively easy task of advancing to the second group stage as their preliminary pool also includes rank outsiders Belarus and Austria.
Germany play Montenegro in Group C on Saturday, when Group D heavyweights Spain and Denmark, the Olympic champions, meet the Czech Republic and Hungary respectively.
The top three teams from each preliminary pool will qualify for the second group stage. The top two from the newly-formed two sections of six will advance to the semi-finals.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editng by Christian Radnedge