But fans surprisingly apathetic
6 September ~ Croatia's World Cup qualifier in Belgrade looks like being something of a damp squib. Following their inept home defeat against Scotland in June, and a run of form which has featured a friendly defeat to Portugal and a 3-2 win against Liechtenstein, Croatia are as good as accepting second place in Group A behind Belgium. Serbia sit third, mathematically able to catch up with Croatia but realistically unlikely to manage it. As with the Zagreb game earlier this year, a tame affair which Croatia strolled 2-0, much of the interest is off the field rather than on.
There is the question of how those Serbia fans turning up at Red Star's Marakana will welcome their neighbours, who have gained EU membership since the away game, as well as about whether there will be many genuine residents of Serbia there, rather than odd members of the Serb diaspora who might come to protest.
The Serbian government will hope for a calm evening – ever since the popular president Tomislav Nikolic came to power the country seems to have made up with the EU, realising there is little point in pursing former goals such as regaining Kosovo. But deep down the old rivalry will still be there.
Not that there will be hordes of Croatians invading Belgrade. It is claimed that 4,000 police are being drafted in but that may be principally to protect such luminaries as José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich, said to be in town on scouting visits. As with the first encounter there will be no away fans, barring a few dignitaries. The difference will be that while Zagreb's Maksimir stadium sold out all its 37,000 seats, the Marakana, with a capacity of 55,000, is expected to be half empty – an apt representation of the apathy of Serbia fans.
On the field, Igor Stimac's Croatia have to win to stand any chance of overhauling Belgium, who are three points ahead with three games to play, one of which is against Croatia next month. Stimac wants to host that in his backyard in Split, where a major turnout can be expected – 70,000 packed the Poljud stadium and the streets around for an EU-welcoming concert by local singer Thompson on June 30, and the locals generally put on a more enthusiastic show. The Croatian FA, however, now presided over by Davor Suker, wants to host the game at Maksimir.
Failure to beat Serbia will make the game as good as irrelevant unless Scotland can beat Belgium. Against the Scots, Stimac applied some mystifying tactics which saw Croatia fail to have a single shot for almost all the match. The midfield was without Luka Modric but included teenage prodigy Mateo Kovacic of Inter, who struggled to impose himself, disproving reports from Italy that he had taken Serie A by storm since joining them from Dinamo.
There was also the odd selection of another Brazilian-Croat alongside Eduardo, Jorge "Matthias" Sammir, which gave the Maksimir crowd something to rant about. Sammir is an ineffective "attacking" midfielder for Dinamo who, locals suggest, is being picked with the aim of earning another big transfer fee for Dinamo's influential owner Zdravko Mamic.
On the Serbian side, it seems that the qualification process cannot end soon enough, with coach Sinisa Mihajlovic reported to be standing down in October – his well-publicised problems with the few Serb players of international quality have effectively ruined any chance of challenging for second place. All round, a dull 0-0 could be on the cards – but with a few flares here and there. Chris Frean