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It will be war minus the shooting

sports Updated: Mar 22, 2013 02:55 IST

Croatia and Serbia's footballers play each other for the first time since independence on Friday, in a highly charged tie given wider significance by political, cultural and historical ties and fresh memories of war.

The run-up to the Group A World Cup qualification match in Zagreb has dominated the media in both countries for several weeks and been billed the "match of the decade".

Tickets sold out within hours and some 34,000 people are expected to pack into the Maksimir Stadium in the Croatian capital for the game, although away supporters have been banned for the tie and the return leg in Belgrade over security concerns.

"The event goes beyond sports as it is an historic first match between the two nations since their independence," Robert Matteoni, a prominent Croatian sports journalist, said.

A complex history of relations between the Balkan neighbours, marked by the brutal internecine fighting of the 1991-1995 war that claimed an estimated 20,000 lives, was an added motivation for both countries, he said.

Matteoni's view is shared by many fans, who say that any sporting encounters between Croatia and Serbia still have a significant emotional charge.

"As long as we live these will never be only pure sports events," said Bobo, a 49-year-old member of Dinamo Zagreb's hardcore "Bad Blue Boys" fans, many of whom joined the Croatian police and army during the conflict.

Spain, France focused before showdown
Paris: With just over a year to go until the World Cup, some of Europe's leading nations are hoping to take a major step towards sealing their places in the finals in Brazil in a busy week of qualifying.

The outstanding game of this month is the clash between France and reigning European and world champions Spain in Paris next Tuesday, with both sides tied on seven points at the top of Group I.

But both countries must first see off unfancied opposition on Friday evening, as Spain entertain Finland in the northern city of Gijon while France host Georgia.

Vicente del Bosque's Spain side must do without captain Iker Casillas and Barcelona skipper Carles Puyol as both recover from injury, and Xavi Hernandez is also struggling for fitness.

Nevertheless, they should still see off the challenge of a Finnish side that currently props up Group I.

"We are all aware that both matches against Finland and France will be finals for us," said Chelsea and Spain winger Juan Mata.