In their first match since their countries split in a bloody civil war, the national soccer teams of Yugoslavia and Croatia struggled to a 0-0 draw tonight in a qualifying match for the 2000 European championships.
Heavily freighted with political overtones both foreign and domestic, the match was interrupted for 45 minutes in the second half when a power failure in the area plunged Red Star Stadium into darkness.
Many in the almost entirely Serbian crowd of 55,000 then began chanting slogans against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who has been trying to fend off mounting demands for his resignation in recent weeks in the wake of his forces' debacle in the rebellious province of Kosovo.
"Slobo go away," the crowd chanted as some fans threw fireworks from the stands and helmeted riot police in camouflage uniforms took positions around the field. "Slobo you [expletive], you betrayed Kosovo," they also shouted.
Some then took up a chant of "tomorrow at the rally," a reference to an anti-Milosevic demonstration planned for Belgrade on Thursday.
At one point, tear gas -- apparently set off by a fan -- wafted across the stands, forcing many spectators to cover their faces with handkerchiefs as they sat in the semi-darkness under emergency lights. There were no reports of violence, however.
When the match finally resumed, the steam seemed to have gone out of both sides, and the quality of play deteriorated. By the end, Yugoslav fans were whistling loudly in derision at what many felt had turned into a lackluster game.
The teams -- both of which finished among the top 16 in the 1998 World Cup -- originally were scheduled to play March 27, but the match had to be postponed because of the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. They are scheduled to play again Oct. 10, with Croatia as the home team, but a site for the match has not been selected.
At the start today, Yugoslavia looked like the dominating team that had amassed a 3-0 record and taken the lead in qualification Group Eight, ahead of Ireland, Macedonia, Croatia and Malta. Barely a minute into the match, striker Predrag Mijatovic, who plays for Fiorentina in Italy's Serie A, took a shot from the right side that bounced off the near goalpost.
Croatia, which finished third in the 1998 World Cup, came back with a strong offensive effort, but a shot by '98 World Cup goal-scoring leader Davor Suker hit the goalpost, and other bids were denied by Yugoslav goalkeeper Aleksandar Kocic. Later in the first half, Yugoslavia was lucky to avoid an own-goal when star defender Sinisa Mihajlovic, who plays for the Italian club Lazio, tried to head a ball out of bounds and inadvertently sent the ball off his team's crossbar.
With less than 10 minutes to play in the match, Croatia clearly was playing for a draw, and Yugoslavia came close to capitalizing on one of its best scoring opportunities. On a free kick, Mihajlovic sent a shot curling over the Croatian defenders, only to see it saved in spectacular fashion when goalkeeper Drazen Ladic leaped and knocked it over the crossbar.
It was the first time the teams have played each other since Yugoslavia began breaking up in the early 1990s. Croatia declared independence and broke away from the Yugoslav federation in a civil war marked by massacres of civilians and floods of refugees. Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia also have broken away, leaving only Montenegro and Serbia in the federation.
Some of that enmity was evident even before the match started when the crowd began chanting, "Ustase, Ustase," as the Croatian players took the field to warm up. The Ustase was a Croatian fascist organization allied with the Nazis during World War II, and Serbs have never forgotten the violent repression it employed.
Jeers and whistling drowned out the Croatian national anthem at the start of the game, and many fans gave the Croatian players the international middle-digit salute. But Serbian fans also disrupted the Yugoslav anthem, which many reject as symbolic of the communist government that once ruled the country and that spawned Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia. A large section of the crowd sang anti-communist songs as the anthem was being played.
Yugoslavia now stands at 3-0-1 with 10 points in the qualifying group, one point ahead of Ireland (3-1). Croatia (2-1-2) is third with eight points, one ahead of Macedonia (2-2-1). A first-place finish in the group ensures qualification for the European championships next year in the Netherlands and Belgium.