For no one does Friday's Serbia-Croatia World Cup qualifier mean more to than Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, the son of a Croatian mother and Serbian father
who grew up in the Croatian river port of Vukovar, where 2,000 citizens were killed in the attack by Serbian forces during the Croatian War of Independence.
Mihajlovic, who was 22 and playing for Red Star Belgrade at the time, told Gazzetta dello Sport what it was like:
"Children who grew up together shooting each other. Families torn apart. I saw fellow Serbians killed, our cities razed to the ground, hospitals, schools and civilians bombed: all blown away. My best friend destroyed my home. When my parents left Vukovar for Belgrade, my uncle, a Croatian and the brother of my mother, telephoned her: 'Why did you leave? You should have stayed here. That way I would have killed your husband, that dirty Serbian piece of s***.' Months later, my uncle was captured by Arkan [Serbian paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic], he was about to be killed, but they found my mobile phone number on him. They called me, and I managed to save his life.”
Mihajlovic hasn't been back to his hometown since 1991:
"It had been razed to the ground. I wasn’t even able to get my bearings right. All I saw were the skeletons of buildings and machinery piled up to create defensive lines. There wasn’t a bird in the sky or a dog in the street. A ghost town. I remember the look of two small boys, perhaps 10-year-olds, they were holding machine guns. They had the eyes of men, but the body of small boys."
Mihajlovic played when Yugoslavia and Croatia met in 1999. He hit the woodwork twice but also assisted on both Yugoslavia goals and earned a 10 of 10 in post-game report cards from Serbian media as the 2-2 tie eliminated Croatia from Euro 2000.
Friday's game in Zagreb -- the first between Serbia and Croatia -- has a different context. Croatia is tied for first with Belgium in Group A with 10 points. Serbia, which has only four points, must win to have any realistic chance of catching the leaders.
Now a UNICEF ambassador, Mihajlovic hopes the match will be played in the right spirit, on and off the field, and teams will be winners, no matter the final result.
Here's a look Friday's four other key European qualifiers:
SWEDEN-IRELAND: Sweden is second with seven points and Ireland is third with six behind first-place Germany in Group C with 10 points. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy) and Darren O’Dea (Toronto FC) are in the Irish squad. TV: GolTV: 4 p.m. ET (delay).
HUNGARY-ROMANIA: Both teams have won three of four games but can't afford another loss in Group D, where the first-place Netherlands has won 12 straight World Cup qualifiers and gone unbeaten in its last 26 qualifiers dating back to 2001. TV: ESPN3, 3:30 pm ET.
ISRAEL-PORTUGAL: With four wins in four games, Russia has already opened up a five-point lead on Israel and Portugal, which are tied for second place. The Portuguese are without Manchester United's Nani, sidelined with a hamstring injury. TV: ESPN3, ESPN Deportes, 8:45 am ET.
BOSNIA-GREECE: Friday's match in Zenica is the only top-of-the-table clash in Europe's nine groups. Bosnia has never beaten Greece in six meetings, but Bosnia coach Safet Susic insists he won't be satisfied with a draw. TV: ESPN3, 3:45 pm ET (ESPN Deportes, Sunday, delay, 9 am ET).
QUALIFYING ON TV: Click here for Soccer America's Soccer on TV with information on Friday's 30 qualifiers available to U.S. viewers.
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