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Serbs triumph over Croats in do-or-die soccer duel

July 23, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ The Yugoslav war started with soccer riots. For many fans, it ended Wednesday, when Serb-Croat teams played each other for the first time in six years _ peacefully.

Serbia’s champions, Partizan Belgrade, beat Croatia’s team 1-0 in the qualification round of the European Champions’ Cup.

But the big news was that the emotionally and politically charged game played out without violence _ in part because lingering wartime restrictions on travel kept almost all the Croat fans away.

Indeed, it was extraordinarily neat and fair, with only one yellow card handed out during a 90-minute match that had been billed as a duel of Balkan titans, a do-or-die bout for the history books.

``I don’t know what happened. Before the war, there was a lot of fire between the two teams, and the matches seemed much more exciting. Now they played like sissies,″ said one disappointed Serbian fan, Milan Peric. ``Where did this nationalism evaporate?″

Before the old Yugoslavia broke up into war in 1991, soccer games like this one were always violent. On the eve of the war, Serbs and Croats _ old Yugoslavia’s bitterest rivals _ turned soccer fields into battlegrounds.

Now, even the predictable explosion of joy among Serb fans was limited to ritual flag-waving and horn-honking in the streets outside the 35,000-seat Partizan stadium.

``This is more than an ordinary victory _ it’s as though we had won the war,″ Partizan fan Zoran Dragic declared.

But there was none of the explosive passion of old times.

In 1991, such emotions exploded whenever teams like Partizan, Croatia _ then called Dinamo _ or Red Star Belgrade and Croatia’s Hajduk played.

After six years of death, destruction and economic ruin, Serbs, Croats and everybody else across Yugoslavia know the price they have paid for following the nationalistic rhetoric of their leaders.

Certainly, the fans know: the extremist core in fan clubs _ Partizan’s ``Grave Diggers″ and Croatia’s ``Bad Blue Boys″ _ joined the most notorious paramilitary units, fighting each other on the fronts.

Two big factors prevented violence Wednesday night: riot police who frisked everyone entering the stadium, and the almost complete absence of Croatia fans.

Travel between Serbia and Croatia remains a complex battle with visa bureaucracy.

The only Croatia fans in sight Wednesday were about 30 journalists who came from Zagreb for the trip. Every time they jumped up to cheer on their team _ which dominated the match, but missed chances to score _ Serb fans yelled, ``Fascists!″

There are unlikely to be any Serb fans on hand for the return match next week in Zagreb.

But Croatian President Franjo Tudjman _ once a Communist general and Partizan’s director _ will be there. He’s a fanatical fan, and even made the Zagreb club change its name, deeming its old name, Dinamo, too reminiscent of the Communist past.

Tudjman’s keen interest, and the expectations of more than 4 million Croats, will weigh heavily on the Croat players.

Much will ride on midfielder Robert Prosinecki, a member of the Croatian national team who just signed a $1.8 million contract with the Zagreb team.

Prosinecki, son of a Serb mother and Croat father, was a member of the Red Star Belgrade team that won the European Cup just before the war, and was in Belgrade for the first time since then Wednesday night.

Ivica Kralj, Partizan’s goalkeeper, who averted what seemed a certain Croatia goal in the 72nd minute Wednesday night, was also under special pressure.

He is of Croatian origin, and admitted that the match was ``historic in a way.″

``The war started with soccer riots,″ Partizan’s director Nenad Bijekovic said. ``We hope that the still-existing tensions will formally end with this soccer match.″

``We’ll call it the truce,″ declared Daca Mihajlovic, a big Partizan fan. ``We badly miss the good old days when we fought gallant battles with Croatian fans in the stadiums. But that is the past. Croatia is a foreign land for us now.″

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