What exactly is at stake for Croatia Friday night in Zagreb?
National Pride? A step closer to the 2014 World Cup? A possible top seed in Brazil?
The correct answer: All of the above.
There is no mistaking the history between Croatia and Serbia. And without getting into the political aspects of the relationship, when it comes to sports, both nations bring the goods when they face off. No matter if it’s handball, basketball or even checkers, both countries make sure they leave it all out on the playing field in their battles. So what should we expect Friday night at Maksimir?
This is only the third time the two nations have faced off in soccer since the break up of the former Yugoslavia. The only two previous meetings ended in draws during Euro 2000 qualifying where Croatia did not make it through to the final tournament. It is the only Euro tournament that Croatia has missed since gaining independence in 1991 (they were still ineligible for Euro 92). But one thing is for certain. Emotions will be high and a standing room-only crowd at Maksimir is sure to make the visitors as unwelcome as possible.
But when it comes down to it, the Croatian national side will have to check their emotions at the door and take care of business. On paper, the Vatreni are the superior team. With Croatia and Belgium tied atop UEFA Group A in a two-legged race for automatic qualification to the World Cup in Brazil, a win over the Serbs would put pressure on the Belgians with a later game Friday night against Macedonia, whom they once again play on March 26th in Brussels. If Croatia can take care of business in Zagreb and win in Wales the following Tuesday, they would be in control of the group should Belgium drop points to the tricky Macedonians. Belgium still has to come to Zagreb later in the year.
If all that wasn’t enough motivation for Croatia to start playing fantastic football at the moment, they moved up one spot to #9 in the the most recent FIFA world rankings. That means if Croatia can move to #7 by the time the draw is conducted in December, and of course qualify for the World Cup, they would be seeded for the World Cup. Portugal has been anything but great and Columbia may fall in CONMEBOL qualification. It is possible. That means Croatia would avoid being grouped with the likes of hosts Brazil, Germany and Argentina, to name a few top teams.
Lots to think about. But first thing’s first: a victory over Serbia.