The much-heralded football match between Croatia and Serbia was played without incident.
By Selena Petrovic and Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb and Belgrade -- 25/03/13
Fans gathered at cafes in Zagreb to watch the match. [Selena Petrovic/SETimes]
The 2014 World Cup qualifier between Croatia and Serbia, the first match the two have played against each other since 1999, was seen as historical and symbolic movement between the two countries, and a step towards reconciliation.
The match on Friday (March 22nd), which Croatia won 2-0, was at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Serb fans were banned from attending the match, based on an agreement between the two countries' football federations. Croatian fans will be banned from attending the September 6th rematch in Belgrade.
The last match the two former Yugoslavia republics played ended in mass riots between fans, injuring dozens.
Although there were numerous risks of potential turbulence on Friday, no major incidents were reported. Both countries made efforts to keep peace on the streets, while messages promoting sportsmanship were spread by state and sport officials.
Furio Radin, Croatia Italian National Community MP, told SETimes that the fans and the police deserve credit for the successful event. He said he hopes this was "the beginning of a new age in which we will care more about who is better at [football] and less who is a Croat or a Serb."
Zheljko Vela, head of sports at Croatia's Nova TV, told SETimes that the match and atmosphere exceeded his expectations.
"All of them knew that this could have been an emotional powder keg and that they had to be able to control the situation. This shows that, when you really want to achive something, it is possible to do it," Marinko Chulic, journalist and regional expert, told SETimes.
"Reconciliation and normalisation of ties in this region is a process. In comparison with the game played between Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [of which Serbia was part] in 1999, this was an immeasurable improvement," he said.
Radovan Nenadic, the president of the citizens association My Voice from Belgrade, said the players showed respect towards each other through positive spirit and fair play but, also, through the lack of violence.
A large screen was set up in Zagreb's Ban Jelachic Square. [Selena Petrovic/SETimes]
"In order to achieve the reconciliation, the states, primarily, have to manage hooligans who are carrying out violence at sports events, which means bringing them to the courts and severely punished. The educational institutions should be dedicated for youth education in a sense of tolerance in order to make them a part of reconciliation process," Nenadic told SETimes.
Serbian journalist Milojko Pantic agreed.
"A ban of the presence to the fans is not the solution; it is braking of human rights. Our states should make lists of hooligans who initiate incidents and ban their entrance to the games and this is very easy to manage. The match behind us showed that we are ready to make some improvements in our sport behavior but it is not enough – states should do its part, now, and manage hooligans," Milojko told SETimes.
Gathering to watch the game on a big screen installed at Ban Jelachic Square in Zagreb, fans discussed the riot police presence and its necessity.
"I think that all these security measures are not needed, because the relations had stabilised," Ivan, 33, a merchant from Zagreb, told SETimes.
Zagreb University student Krshana told SETimes she would not mind traveling to Serbia for the rematch in Belgrade in September. "If we are welcome there, why not? [Belgraders] are very likable. I have a lot of friends there. I don’t think there are problems between young people. I think there is a great friendship between Zagreb and Belgrade."
Zoran Franic, 35, a former athlete who came to Zagreb from the country’s coastal region of Dalmatia to see the game, seemed unwilling to talk about the sensitivity surrounding the qualifier, stating that he had "just come for the game." Everything else, he said, depends on how the majority of people behave.
Fans in Belgrade were also pleased.
"The city was completely empty some hour before the match although it will be played in Zagreb, not in Belgrade. Thank God, everything went well -- it seems that we have passed over our bloody past. I haven’t noticed demonstration, attacks on Croatian symbols or anything similar, yet, although Serbia lost the game. Maybe, finally, it was just a sport game not national war," Vanja Petrovic, 35, a painter from Belgrade, told SETimes.