IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

This game meant more than the World Cup

WashPost: Serbia and Montenegro-Bosnia showdown game between rival countries
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

This was not just another important soccer match on the way to the World Cup, with the usual flag-waving and chanting for the home team by fans who jump up and down in unison as if on pogo sticks.

This match was between embittered countries that were once part of Yugoslavia, which fought a war that ended 10 years ago but are still unreconciled: on one side Serbia and Montenegro, on the other, Bosnia. They met here Wednesday night on the final day of group qualifying all but certain that a loss would dash any hopes of reaching next summer's tournament in Germany.

Police escorted visiting fans from Bosnia to the game to keep them safe. One Bosnian player stayed away because of unspecified threats. Serbian players reportedly paid some fans from the Serb Republic region of Bosnia to attend, knowing they were sure to root against their home country. Hundreds of riot police lined roads leading to the stadium and newly installed television cameras monitored the crowd. Alcohol and fireworks, the usual accessories of raucous crowds here, were forbidden.

The passions were high enough anyway. The much quicker Serbian team pressed on the goal from the beginning and scored early when striker Nikola Zigic, who is 6 feet 8, headed the ball onto the foot of Mateja Kezman, who beat Bosnian goalkeeper Kenan Hasagic. Serbia and Montenegro, which gave up only one goal during nine previous qualifying matches, held off Bosnia the rest of the way, the 1-0 victory providing the nation with its first World Cup berth.

France and Sweden clinched Europe's two other remaining automatic berths while the Czech Republic, Turkey, Slovakia, Switzerland and Spain clinched playoff spots by finishing second in their groups.

There are few places where history could burden the proceedings more than in the Balkans, home of a series of ethnic wars in the 1990s. Serbs, Muslims and Croats fought a three-sided war. Under the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, Bosnia, also known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, is split into two republics, with Muslims and Croats locked into an uneasy partnership in one while ethnic Serbs maintain the other. When Serbia and Montenegro played Bosnia in Sarajevo last year, Bosnian fans held up a banner that read, "We have 250,000 reasons to hate you." The number referred to estimates of Bosnian war dead. The game ended in a scoreless draw.

Despite efforts to play down the political shading of the game, the past stuck out like an extra goalkeeper on the field.

"This match is like no other because more fans from Bosnia will support Serbia than their own country. It's a unique situation," said Munib Usanovic, who heads Bosnia's football federation.

Still, Usanovic said he hoped the game would undo some of the bitterness from the civil war. "We are playing with Serbia and Montenegro, not against them," he said. Looking on the bright side, the United Nations marked the occasion by sending an official to the game. She told a television interviewer that it showed sport could overcome hard feelings. Doves were set loose at the outcome of the game -- a symbol of peace. They had to be prodded by a handler to fly.

The war may be over but not the feelings. "Serbia is our motherland and we came to support our team. I don't really see anything strange about it. We will be really happy if our team wins," said Mirko Jovovic, a Serb from Bijeljina in eastern Bosnia. He was wearing a white T-shirt with a map of Bosnia on the front, the outlines of the separatist Serb Republic drawn in. On the back the words, "Bijeljina Serbia, Never B-H."

A teenage companion named Dragomir declared himself in favor of a referendum to separate the Serb Republic from Bosnia. Cars with black flags decorated with a white skull and crossbones passed by. The flag is the emblem of the Chetniks -- feared Serbian nationalist militias that were implicated in civilian killings and torture in Bosnia.

A trio of Bosnian Muslim fans who ventured downtown spoke of their worries about the game. "We can survive some harassment from the home-side fans, we think," said Senad Hadzibegovic, an economist from Sarajevo.

"A Bosnian win would be greater than any other win of our team because of all the Muslims killed during the war. Payback, kind of, for all the misery we suffered during the war," said Senad Rindal, a 43-year-old mechanical engineer.

This was a farewell game for a generation of soccer players who once played and even lived among each other in a single country. Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia until the country began to break apart.

Take Elvir Bolic, 37, Bosnia's top scorer. He played for Red Star, a Belgrade team, in 1992. This was his first visit to Belgrade since then. He had fled death threats from anonymous callers who noted disapprovingly that he was Muslim. He wanted to celebrate a revenge homecoming Wednesday. "I would like to mark my return with a goal and a victory. No one would be happier than me," he said.

Savo Milosevic, 33, Serbia's captain, is a refugee from Sarajevo, now the Bosnian capital, where Serbs, Croats and Muslims once lived in harmony. "I know every Serb and Montenegrin will be with us, cheering every kick and fighting every tackle," said Milosevic before the game. "What we need is a cool head in the heated atmosphere. It won't be a nice match to watch."

Bosnia's team comprises a collection of Muslims, Croats and one Serb -- a player named Branimir Bajic, who also plays for Partizan, the other Belgrade team. He didn't suit up. His coach, Blaz Sliskovic, said Bajic had received threats. "I couldn't forgive myself if something would happened to this guy," Sliskovic said.

Serbia and Montenegro, an overwhelmingly ethnic Serb country, has only Serb players.

Even the national anthems played dutifully before the game expressed the dysfunctional quality of the two countries and their component parts. Serbia and Montenegro's national anthem is a leftover from Yugoslav days and reflects a kind of ethnocentric attitude that split Yugoslavia. It is called "Hey, Slavs." No mention of Montenegro, the appendage that borders the Mediterranean Sea. Montenegro wants to hold its own independence referendum next year.

Bosnia's national anthem has no lyrics. The Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims can't agree on the words. "You can pick your own words. We have full democracy," quipped Hadzibegovic, the Bosnian fan.

By the time the doves finally left the stadium a chair-throwing fight had broken out between Bosnian and Serbs in the stands. It was the only violent incident of the game.