|"Police battle rioting fans when violence erupts at a football match between fans of Red Star Belgrade and Dynamo Zagreb Yugoslavia in 1990." (Rex Features)|
By Shaun Walker
The Independent, March 21, 2013
"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. [...]"