Belfast Telegraph

Serbia v Northern Ireland: At least we won’t have to silence home fans

By Steven Beacom

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times from managers preparing to face a tough assignment away from home.

The cliche goes something like: “In the first 20 minutes our aim will be to keep their fans quiet.”

That’s one problem Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington and his players won’t have to deal with on Friday night when they face Serbia in Belgrade in a key European Championship qualifier.

The Serbian people are banned from the match after their fans wreaked havoc in Italy earlier in the qualifying campaign.

On the afternoon of October 12 Northern Ireland drew 1-1 in the Faroe Islands. While that was a highly embarrassing result for Worthington’s side, it was the calm before the storm in Group C.

Kick-off in Genoa later that night was delayed as Serb “supporters” threw flares on to the pitch and at Italian fans in the stands.

When the match finally started the trouble continued with more flares being set off and fireworks flung on to the playing surface, one of which landed close to Italy goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano, leading to Scottish referee Craig Thomson taking the players off and abandoning the game.

Just six minutes had been played.

Serbia's ambassador to Italy, Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, said: “What happened in Genoa was a disgrace. I take this opportunity to send apologies from the embassy, our government and our population to the Italian people for what has happened.”

Uefa took a dim view too. They awarded Italy a 3-0 win, fined the Football Association of Serbia €120,000 and ordered their home game with Northern Ireland to be played behind closed doors.

Serbian fans have also been banned from travelling to their remaining away games in the campaign, which includes a trip to Belfast in September.

Publicly the Serbian management and players are putting a brave face on the fan ban, but privately they know it is a bitter blow because their supporters are an intimidating lot, who can have an impact on the opposition and the result. Just like the thousands who turn up at

Windsor Park when David Healy and co are in town.

Imagine a Northern Ireland game in Belfast with the stands empty and devoid of that incessant noise that has turned some of the best players in the world into quivering wrecks.

That's what the Serbs face in a game that is must win for them to stand any chance of getting back into contention for Euro qualification.

At least Worthington’s team will have some backing in Belgrade.

To their credit the Irish FA persuaded Uefa to allow 265 members of the Green and White Army, who had already paid for flights to travel before the initial behind closed doors decision was made.

I can't wait to hear what our supporters will chant in the 55,538 capacity Red Star stadium.

“You’re not singing any more,” could be replaced by “You’re not singing at all” while surely “Can you hear the Serbians sing.....” will get an airing.

The last time Northern Ireland travelled to Belgrade, just TEN fans made the journey.

The 1991 trip was a nightmare for them, with their charter flight cancelled, forcing them to fly to Athens before having to pay £300 for a couple of taxis to take them to their destination. Back then that destination was Yugoslavia.

Confused? Those of you who are old enough and remember your history may recall that a series of conflicts and political upheavals resulted in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, changing the Balkan region forever and eventually giving the world new nations — Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia popped up on the map.

While the Serbia football team reached the World Cup finals in South Africa last year and has provided outstanding talents such as Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic (injured for Friday), they have yet to hit the heights of the Yugoslavian national team.

When kick-off takes place on Friday, it will be almost 20 years to the day since Billy Bingham’s side were outclassed in Belgrade by a brilliant Yugoslav outfit, going down 4-1 in a European Championship group game.

Colin Hill scored for Northern Ireland, who couldn’t cope with the unique talents of Darko Pancev and Robert Prosinecki.

Pancev was in his pomp and he netted a hat-trick in that game, just a couple of months before helping Red Star Belgrade to European Cup victory over Marseille.

Now a well respected Sky Sports pundit, Iain Dowie played up front for Northern Ireland that night.

He recalled: “Over my whole career I can honestly say, even though we scored a goal, it was the most one sided game I ever played in.

“They had some team back then. All over the pitch they had top class players with Prosinecki the pick of them. He was in a different league, spraying the ball all over the place.”

Although a quick scan on YouTube shows that there were no fans in the bottom tiers of the 90,000 seater capacity that night, those above made up for that.

“It was a very hostile atmosphere,” said Dowie.

“I would say that only Turkey was worse for us during my travels with Northern Ireland.

“They knew how to get behind their team. The people over there are extremely passionate, so from that point of view it is a result that our boys won't have to face a home crowd.

“The game won't be easy, but that's one less thing to worry about.”

Yugoslavia had such a superb side, they should really have gone on to win the 1992 European Championships, but when civil war broke out all over the country, they were denied their place in the tournament due to sporting sanctions placed in the country.

Denmark, who finished second ahead of Bingham's boys in the group, replaced them and stunned Europe as they went on to win the competition.

In Serbia, players are suggesting that it is destiny for them to, 20 years on, become European champions in 2012.

Defeat against Northern Ireland on Friday evening will end that particular dream.

It would also give 265 hardy souls with Ulster accents much to cheer all on their own in the Red Star stadium.

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