Archrivals Deluxe : Divided by War, Croats, Serbs Put Politics Aside in Name of Sport
Croats and Serbs stood next to each other in bathing suits and robes Friday before Croatia and Yugoslavia faced each other in a water polo match, meeting in Olympic competition for the first time since the bloody dissolution of their country.
Once teammates and countrymen, the Croatians stood inattentively with arms crossed or dangling as the Yugoslav players were introduced. The Yugoslavs, in turn, gave two quick claps at the name of each Croatian.
In the stands, two delirious bands of Croatian supporters celebrated as Croatia bolted to a 5-1 lead on its way to an 8-6 quarterfinal victory at Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.
Dubravko Simenc, a member of Yugoslavia’s gold-medal winning team in 1988, scored three goals for Croatia, shaking both fists above the water after one.
“We cannot go back to the war, the war that took place on our soil,” Simenc said. “There is a town called Vukovar, where a couple thousand people died for their Croatian homeland. I would like to dedicate this victory to those people and to my family. I have two girls, 2 and 4 years old, who do not understand this. But one day, they will understand that their father played a historic game in his life.”
In the water, the game was no rougher than the usual shoving and holding in a sport in which the most vicious play is often under the surface.
“This is only sports. We are professionals. It has to be put behind you,” said Croatia’s Vjekoslav Kobescak, bleeding slightly from a scratch on his chest after the game. “The usual, a scratch. After the match, I shake hands and they shake too. We played together before. We don’t see each other often any more, but we are colleagues.
“Part of my family is in Dubrovnik, and Dubrovnik was under siege. That’s all behind us. Let’s forget about this and go ahead.”
Yugoslavia, a world power in water polo, won gold medals in 1984 and ’88 (the Croatian captain, Perica Bukic, was on both teams). The Yugoslavs were not in Barcelona in 1992 because of a United Nations ban. But even separated, Yugoslavia and Croatia were considered medal contenders here.
“We are two teams,” Yugoslavia’s Mirko Vicevic said. “We would make a better team as one, that’s for sure.
“We play this like any other match. For me it doesn’t matter if it’s Croatia, Germany or the U.S. It was very important match. Today we play Croatia, and we lose.”
Now only Croatia has a chance to win a medal.
“This is sports, and this has nothing to do with Yugoslavia,” Croatia’s Tino Vegar said. “That is only politics, politicians speaking. There is no shooting here, just playing.”
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CROATIA vs. YUGOSLAVIA: Having been either dominated or ruled for centuries by a succession of foreign powers--Hungary, Turkey, Austria, Germany--Croatia is understandably skittish about any perceived or real threats to its nationhood.
After the defeat of Austria-Hungary in World War I, the Croats joined other territories in cobbling together what became Yugoslavia.
Independence was proclaimed in 1941 and recognized by Axis powers Germany and Italy, but by 1945 Croatia was under the Communist Yugoslav umbrella.
Croatia again declared independence in 1991, and since then its relationship with Yugoslavia has alternated between open warfare and uneasy truce.