There are few football rivalries — if any — that are as deep-rooted and ferocious as that between Croatia and Serbia. The feud on the pitch obviously pales in comparison to the bitter wars in the Balkans, yet fighting between soccer hooligans from both countries drew world attention in the early 1990s and became part of the bigger picture.
This past March, Serbia played its first competitive game against Croatia as an independent nation, the first of its two World Cup qualifying duels. In that match, Serbian fans were banned from traveling to Zagreb as a safety measure, (as were Croatian fans on Friday), reporters at the game overheard a distinct “Let’s kill the Serbs” chant, and Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic was accused of nationalist gestures during a goal celebration.
Needless to say, tempers were frayed on Friday to begin with. But then Croatia’s Josip Simunic, with the score tied 1-1 late in the match, unleashed a horrendous challenge on Serbia’s Miralem Sulejmani. Simunic deliberately took out the Benfica forward in a full speed collision, trying to prevent a clear breakaway and sending Sulejmani a good 4-5 yards in the air.
Simunic was appropriately sent off, and showered with boos and several missiles by the home crowd. The match ended in a draw, knocking Serbia out from the World Cup qualification process.