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He leaned to me and said: I pray to God your whole family is murdered

The thing with the Balkans, as Sir Winston Churchill once said, is that "they produce more history than they can consume".

Igor Stimac, the Croatia coach, has known his counterpart since childhood yet their parting was filled with animosity. Picture: Getty Images
Igor Stimac, the Croatia coach, has known his counterpart since childhood yet their parting was filled with animosity. Picture: Getty Images

You would be forgiven for thinking it might sound a little patronising in the region, but the remark is readily quoted here, not least because it has repeatedly been proved accurate.

Before their teams were drawn in the same qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup, Croatia's Igor Stimac and Serbia's Sinisa Mihajlovic hadn't spoken to one another for more than 20 years.

Over time, the story of their animosity reached almost epic proportions and this was probably the only thing that could make them set aside their differences for the greater good, at least temporarily. Because when they did talk two decades ago, it was only to exchange death threats.

"In one moment we were face to face," Mihajlovic later revealed, reminiscing their encounter in the 1991 Yugoslav Cup final. "He leaned to me and said, his voice full of hatred: 'I pray to God your whole family in Borovo gets murdered.' I blacked out; I could slay him with my teeth."

Years later, he said Stimac was "the only person he could strangle with his bare hands", while the man who became his nemesis never admitted to saying what Mihajlovic claimed he did, but continued to let off poisonous arrows in his direction. "I realise he has to try twice as hard as anyone else to prove his allegiance to Serbia. But his mother is Croatian, his wife Italian, he married and baptised his children in a Catholic church; they [the Serbs] will never accept him," Stimac said 10 years ago in an interview with the Croatian weekly magazine Nacional.

Born to a Bosnian Serb father and Croat mother, Mihajlovic grew up in Borovo, the industrial borough of Vukovar, a Croatian city lying along the Danube river on the border with Serbia. He was one of the 106,041 people who declared themselves "Yugoslavs" at the 1991 population census in Croatia, then one of Yugoslavia's six republics which are all independent nations now. As Croatia sought to break away from the federation, much of its Serb ethnic minority opposed independence. Barricades were raised around some of their enclaves with the help of ultra-nationalist volunteers who came from Serbia to spark rebellion.

In early May of 1991, an armed conflict between Croatian police and local militia in a village just outside Vukovar led to fatalities on both sides. Conflicting media reports on the incident polarised the public and radicalised tensions. The Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), Serb-dominated and determined to preserve the federation at any cost, took up positions in the area. It was the onset of war.

On May 8, Hajduk Split travelled to Belgrade to play Red Star in the Yugoslav Cup final. It was only six days after the killings and 11 days before the referendum on independence in Croatia; three weeks later Red Star would win the European Cup. Hajduk surprisingly won 1-0 and took the trophy, which they kept and have not returned to this day, as it was their last season in the federal competition.

The match is also remembered for the heated altercation between Hajduk's Stimac and Red Star's Mihajlovic, which ended with both being sent off.

The two men had known each other since childhood, having played together for Croatia select teams at inter-republic youth tournaments, as well as for Yugoslavia. However, when their generation – led by the backbone of the future Croatia national team (Boban, Suker, Prosinecki, etc) – won the 1987 World Youth Championship, it was without Mihajlovic. Months before the competition, he had been on trial at Dinamo Zagreb, but they only offered him a youth contract and Miroslav Blazevic, then coach of Dinamo (and later of Croatia in 1998) demanded that he cut his hair.

As Mihajlovic later claimed in his authorised biography Ubojita levica (Killer Left Foot), he was also being blackmailed by Mirko Jozic, the Yugoslavia Under-20 coach and a Bosnian Croat, who told him he wouldn't select him if he didn't sign for Dinamo. The player's childhood friends say that Mihajlovic supported Dinamo's rivals (and Stimac's club) Hajduk Split; in any case, he didn't like the ultimatum and decided to return to his third-tier local club, Borovo.

Had he stayed – his brother was already living in Zagreb, attending school there – perhaps he would have opted to represent the country of his birth after Yugoslavia crumbled. Robert Prosinecki, his later team-mate in Red Star and another former Yugoslav of mixed heritage, did so.

Instead, Mihajlovic became perceived as a fully-fledged Serb nationalist, mostly because of his friendship with Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan and both a prominent Red Star supporter and a commander of Serbian paramilitary forces.

Arkan took him under his protection when he struggled to be accepted because of his dual ethnic identity. He also arranged for Mihajlovic's family to take refuge in Belgrade before their hometown fell into the hands of the Yugoslav Army and his own volunteers. After being under siege for three months, Vukovar was almost completely destroyed by November 1991; its Croat and other non-Serb population expelled, killed or taken captive. One of those, as Mihajlovic revealed in a 2011 interview for the French magazine So Foot, was his mother's brother.

"Arkan called me and said he had my uncle," he said. "He offered me a choice: either I come to pick him up, or his men would murder him. I took him and he spent two months living with my family in Belgrade before returning to Croatia."

Stimac, on the other hand, never had any doubts as to where he belonged. "My only regret is not being able to fight in the war," he claimed in that 2003 Nacional interview. "But if it breaks out again, rest assured I'll be on the frontline." In 2008, when Mihajlovic publicly offered him to end their feud over a bottle of wine, he declined: "I could never drink with him. We won't have any more contacts, that's for sure."

But that's the thing with history in the region: it just keeps coming and you can never consume all of it. Because if you try, you'll only be stuck in the past fighting wars, either ethnic or personal. History can't wait; you need to move on with it. And, in this case, play football.

| Aleksandar Holiga is an independent football writer based in Zagreb, Croatia. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexHoliga

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