Hooligans concern Croatia more than Serbia
Croatia host Serbia on Friday in an important World Cup qualifier, but, with both nations scolded recently for their inability to end hooliganism, seems to be concerned more with the potential for violence than points.
Croatia shares the first place in Group A with Belgium on 10 points from four matches, six points clear of third-placed Serbia.
The Croats have a stronger team, with more prominent international players, such as Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric.
Asked whether the good form of Serbian players in their clubs concerns him, Croatia's coach Igor Stimac said: "If they should worry me, then Sinisa Mihajlovic should be in the psychiatric ward."
Mihajlovic is Serbia's coach whose fiery temperament has often brought him into trouble during his playing days. This time, however, he made an effort to tone down emotions of fans and players.
"Journalists imply tension and drama much more than we feel it," he said. "The match against Croatia is important, but not more than previous or subsequent games.
"It is just a game and we're going there convinced that we can make a good result, but most of all to have fun."
But if Serbia lose, they can all but say goodbye to the World Cup in Brazil. Stimac spelled it out Monday night, saying that he expects Serbia to begin worrying about qualifying for the next Euro after Friday's duel with his squad.
If Serbia wins, however, it will come to within just one win away to the group leaders, with a reasonable chance to secure at least the second place and a shot at qualifying through a play-off.
Both sides remember 1999, when Serbia eliminated Croatia - which had just a year before been third place at the World Cup in France - from Euro 2000 with a draw in Maksimir, the Zagreb stadium which is the playing field again on Friday.
"Croats were favourites then, too," Mihajlovic said earlier, while Stimac promised that "we will not repeat mistakes from that match."
For Croatia and Serbia, though, it is always more than the race to the next big tournament.
"It is a fight for domination in the region," former Croatian international Dario Simic said.
Croats and Serbs were at war just two decades ago, when Croatia declared independence from former Yugoslavia and Belgrade sent the army to stop the secession. There was much making-up in the past decade, but a lot of underlying hostility remains.
Europe's governing body Uefa has recently warned both Croatia and Serbia that they must stomp out hooliganism or face serious consequences.
Zagreb and Belgrade worry that troublemakers may spoil the show again. To reduce the risk, they agreed to ban visiting fans from attending both legs of the duel.
"Because of history and the war, there will be no stands for visiting fans," said the Croatian football organisation HNS commissioner for security, Zoran Cvrk.
Tickets were "individualized" and checked against the identity of their holder at the gate. Anybody with somebody else's ticket will not only not be stopped from entering, but detained, Cvrk warned.
Showing how seriously they takes any threat, Croatian authorities on Friday arrested the HNS official and Dinamo Zagreb president Zdravko Mamic and charged him for hate speech after he ranted against Serbs in a radio show.