BELGRADE, Serbia – The strained political relations between bitter Balkan rivals Serbia and Croatia have spilled over into soccer.
A proposal by Croatia coach Igor Stimac that acquitted generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac take the honorary kickoff at the start of a World Cup qualifier between the two nations on March 22 in Zagreb was greeted with fury by Serbian soccer officials.
Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, a Serb born in Croatia, said Monday his team would boycott the match if the two are allowed on the field.
"I believe that neither FIFA nor UEFA will allow that they take the starting kickoff," Mihajlovic said, referring to soccer's world and European governing bodies. "However, if that happens, we won't play the match. That's the only way they can defeat us."
On Friday, the two generals were acquitted by the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of charges of being responsible for war crimes against minority Serbs during a 1995 Croatian military blitz that resulted in hundreds of dead and hundreds of thousands expelled.
The decision to release the two — hailed in Croatia and denounced in Serbia — further strained relations between nations that fought a war in the 1990s.
After receiving criticism from his own soccer federation, Stimac said that his words "were taken out of context."
Croatian soccer federation President Davor Suker said Stimac "needs a spanking" for the proposal.
"We have to lessen the tensions and that's how we have to behave," Suker said. "We have to show that we are a civilized state. We have to show respect toward Serbia."
Croatia and Belgium lead Group A with 10 points, with Serbia six points behind. The winner qualifies for the 2014 tournament and the second-place team probably will advance to a playoff.