Strange as it sounds for a World Cup qualifier, football will take a backseat on Friday in Zagreb. In the Croatian capital, Serbia and Croatia will meet for the first time since the breakup of Yugoslavia. Due to serious concerns about the possibility of violence between the two fan bases, Serbian fans will not be allowed into the match, nor will Croatian fans be permitted to attend the reverse fixture.
In recent weeks, nearly all discussion about Croatia - Serbia has been about off the field issues. UEFA President Michel Planti wrote a letter to both football federations, urging them to curb sports violence. Right-wing groups called for Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic to be denied entry into Croatia. Zdravko Mamic, boss of Dinamo Zagreb, accused Croatian Minister of Sport Zeljko Jovanovic, who is an ethnic Serb, of "hating everything Croatian." There's also a rumor that Serbian forward Lazar Markovic has been forbidden by Partizan to join up with the side in Croatia.
If you live outside the Balkans, you probably give the region little thought. You probably don't consider the fact that ethnic tensions continue to simmer under the surface, and that even if only a small minority of the population hold fast to these views, there's still a very real threat of violence. That's why it's simply impossible to discuss this qualifier solely in terms of football.
But football still remains, and it will likely be fueled by both sides' need to prove themselves not just as players but as representatives of their country. Croatia will have the upper hand in this respect -- not only are they playing in front of their own fans, but they're second in the group, even on points with Belgium. Serbia, on the other hand, have managed just one win, a 6-1 victory over Wales that apparently used up all their goals. Serbia haven't scored in any of their three other matches.
Serbia have enough talent to make a better run, but if you ever watched Fiorentina under Mihajlovic, you'll have some idea how his side plays: cautious football with a disconnect between the defense and attack, with a dash of long-held feuds keeping players from the pitch. There's also a touch of crazy thrown in just to liven things up a bit. Combine that with the players' inability to finish and you'll see why they often can't get a goal.
Croatia, meanwhile, have found a way to break through the defense of each team they've faced -- and they've got the element of surprise on their side, with every goal coming from a different player. And even though he's not the one scoring goals, you can count on the fact that Luka Modric is orchestrating them, building up the attack and creating chances that allow his teammates to pounce. On the other end of the pitch, Croatia look solid, having conceded just twice in their four qualifying matches.
Match Date / Time: Friday, March 22 at 6 p.m. local, 1 p.m. ET
Venue: Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, Croatia
TV: ESPN 3, ESPN Deportes (USA)