Politics On The Pitch #7: Groups Of Death Part 4 – 1990-99

Finally, after nearly an exact year since Groups of Death Part 1 in Politics On The Pitch, we come to the final chapter of this epic mini-series looking at politically and militarily uncomfortable match-ups (and many resulting withdrawals) in world football throughout the 20th century. Although it took a while to get going, as you’ll see, we now finish with the fascinating 1990s, which despite the slow starts culminates in probably the most politically fascinating group of all time.

World Cup 94 Qualifiers

With the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991, a period of relative world peace and prosperity began on many parts of earth (ahem) meaning there are vast swathes of the 90s with nothing much to report on… Reflecting this, Euro 92 qualifiers had featured a reunited Germany, a soon to dissolve Soviet Union, and an Ireland-England pairing that, although still juicy, had been done many times by now.

Sure, the break-up of Yugoslavia the following year led to significant violence, and there was still tension in Northern Ireland, but no other powers were yet involving themselves in the Balkans and the North’s Good Friday agreement would soon be signed in 1994. While Yugoslavia’s situation removed them from world football, Ireland and Northern Ireland were again drawn together in World Cup 94 qualifying leading to an infamously tense final game in Windsor Park, with only a few brave souls from the Republic venturing up to see their side qualify amid safety concerns for away fans in the British loyalist stronghold.


Northern Ireland fans sending provocative gestures in the general direction of the Republic of Ireland, World Cup 94 qualifier, 17/11/1993.

One situation that raised eyebrows elsewhere was in Asia’s AFC Zone, where the possibility of certain countries qualifying for USA 94 rather than specific match-ups was the issue. From 6 preliminary groups, the winners who made it through to the final group round consisted of three US allies in Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, and three countries with US economic sanctions against them – Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

As each team would play the other four once in Doha, Qatar, throughout October 1993, with the top two advancing to the finals, it also meant a meeting between North Korea and South Korea. This too, however, was a match that had already taken place as many as seven times since 1978, but after the Doha game – a 3-0 win for South Korea – the fixture would not return until a heartwarming 2005 friendly to celebrate 60 years since all of Korea’s independence from Japan.

In the end, the United States had nothing to worry about when it came to letting in their economic enemies. Iraq, Iran and North Korea finished 4th, 5th and 6th in the group, while 1st and 2nd placed Saudi Arabia and South Korea could look forward to a rousing welcome from Uncle Sam the following Summer.


South Korea's third goal in a 3-0 win over their Northern cousins in Doha, Qatar, World Cup 94 qualifier, 28/10/1993.

Meanwhile in Africa, withdrawals from the opening group stage were as rife as they had been in the past, signaling the poverty and conflict still experienced across the continent while the western economies prepared to boom. Out of the nine groups, ten teams withdrew without kicking a ball: Uganda, Sierre Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sudan, Malawi, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali.

Two other African nations would also end qualification early for off the field reasons, as sanctions relating to both serious international incidents and internal problems (to put it mildly) again effected those who just wanted/were lucky enough to play a game for a living. Group D’s Libya, originally scheduled as have all matches away from home, left in protest in March 1992 after UN air and arms embargoes were placed on the country’s regime for not handing over suspects of the 1989 Lockerbie Bombing, and in Group B Liberia withdrew after two games in November 1992 as it’s civil war (1989-96) degraded into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.

Euro 96 Qualifiers

The qualifiers for the Euro 96 were momentous as many newly independent nations – formerly within the socialist unions of Czechoslovakia, USSR, and Yugoslavia – were taking part in their first campaign of any kind (plus Lichtenstein). Israel, having competed for World Cup qualification through UEFA many times as we have previously discussed, also competed for the chance to make it to a Euros for the first time, with a precedent already set through Eurovision Song Contest entries since 1973.

This all pumped the number of teams from 33 in the 1992 qualifiers to a whopping 47 for 1996, and that was still without the excluded Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s rump state, later to become simply Serbia and Montenegro). It also created interesting religious dynamics such as in Group 1, where Azerbaijan (99% Muslim), France (50% Christian; 39% non-religious) Israel (74% Jewish) Poland (87% Catholic) and Romania (81% Orthodox Christian) all battled it out for supremacy.

In Group 4, Italy found themselves in the interesting situation of being “surrounded” entirely by the debutante quintet of Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Ukraine (although the Baltic states had achieved independence early enough to have made it into World Cup 94 qualifying, along with Russia taking the Soviet Union’s place). With one new competitor at England 96 therefore all but guaranteed (the worst group runners-up would still have to meet in a play-off) the Croats displayed that the Balkan tradition of football excellence would live on without the Yugoslavian banner, as they pipped the Italians for top-spot by goal-difference.


Croatians en route to a great 1-2 victory away to Italy in only their third ever competitive match, Euro 96 qualifier, 16/11/1994.

Group 4 also demonstrated the numerous possibilities of states, who had previously been united under old regimes, now facing off against each other. In World Cup 94 qualifying, Lithuania had already been drawn against neighbours Latvia and this time it was Estonia, as well fellow-former Soviet Republic Ukraine, while Croatia and Slovenia had both been part of the old Yugoslavia.

In all of these cases, the teams involved were representing states that had effectively been on the same side in their independence movements. But particularly with the break-up of Yugoslavia, which was still on-going as the Bosnian War lasted until December 1995, future nasty “dream matches” between sworn enemies once again became inevitable in world football.

World Cup 98 Qualifiers

In Europe all remained calm for the 98 qualifiers – up to 50 teams from 36 last time – with the only semi-notable situations arising in the likes of Group 1, where three former Yugoslav republics were placed together for the first time (debuting Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia); Group 6 for the return of the Yugoslavia name itself, along with the former-Czechoslovak derby for the first time in a competitive setting; and the pairing of Latvia and Estonia in Group 4, meaning the three Baltic sides had now met. In Central and North America’s CONCACAF zone, economic sanctions again effected matters as embargoed Cuba played their first round home game against Cayman Islands, second round 1ss and 2nd-legs against Haiti, and third round home fixtures against El Salvador, Honduras and Panama either on neutral soil or in the opponent’s ground.

Even in Africa things improved as the only sides to withdraw were Mali and Niger, while Liberia also returned, however Libya were still absent, In final round Group 5, Sierra Leone’s game away in Gabon was also postponed and later cancelled, as the team were unable to leave Freetown due to events arising from the country’s long civil war (1991-2002), but they returned to defeat Ghana 0-2 in an inconsequential match at the end of the group (ending ahead of the Ghanaians despite playing one less game).

World Cup 1998

Group F

Germany
Iran
United States
FR Yugoslavia

While the US did not have to confront the issue of allowing “rogue nations” in at World Cup 94, their participation at the following edition in France threw up a whole group for them filled with political undercurrents. Joining the Americans in Group F were their former World War enemies/current militarily base ally Germany; a country with whom relations had been fraught since the 1979 “Islamic Revolution”, Iran; and a state that would soon feel the wrath of US-backed military might, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Of course with WW2 a distant memory, the first game against the Germans held little significance to most, although their inclusion in this group of American “enemies” can’t have been lost on some. After a 2-0 win for the Europeans, a more current affair was up next for USA with what FIFA themselves call the most politically charged match in World Cup history.

The US had previously supported the old Iranian government following a CIA-backed coup in the 1950s, until the aforementioned Islamic Revolution in 1979 removed the Shah and installed the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic, breaking relations. Later that year the Iranian hostage situation at the American embassy in Tehran, followed by retaliatory sanctions, an American backing of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War 1980-88, and American strikes on Iranian targets in 1988 including a commercial airliner, all contributed to the bad-will between the two countries.

Ahead of the game against Iran in Lyon on the Summer solstice, June 21st, 1998, there were concerns for both the safety of the American team from extremist attacks and for the possibility of dissident Iranians using the high profile occasion to protest against the own government. There was also a disagreement on the night before the match on who would walk towards who to shake hands before kick-off (approaching the other side with a sign of submission was out of the question for the Iranian authorities), with a compromise reached for a presentation of flowers instead and a joint team line-up to symbolise the uniting power of sport over nearly every other human division.


The US and Iranian teams join forces for peace ahead of their World Cup 98 first round match, 21/06/1998.

Not long into the game, rumours of protests became a reality as a whole section of Iranians unfurled political banners and flags against the regime, prompting clashes with some of their fellow supporters. Riot police moved in to surround the group and prevent them from invading the pitch, on which their team would go on to record a famous 2-1 victory over the Westerners.


Iranian political protestors make their presence felt during the World Cup 98 first round clash against USA, 21/06/1998.

A hat-trick of poor performances for the Americans was completed four days later against Yugoslavia, as another 0-1 defeat left them eliminated at the bottom of the group. This will have been particularly satisfying for the winners as, although US-led sanctions against the Yugoslavs during the Balkan conflicts had been lifted in October 1996 following the peace accords of 95, the sanctions had just been reinstated mere months before the match at the outbreak of the Kosovo War in March 1998.

Euro 2000 Qualifiers

Group 8

Croatia
Republic of Ireland
FYR Macedonia
Malta
FR Yugoslavia

Finally, and staying with the Balkan theme, Euro 2000 qualifying Group 8 produced what was definitely the ultimate grudge match of the of the decade: Croatia vs Yugoslavia, featuring the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (aka Forgotten Yugoslav Republic) thrown in for good measure. With the aforementioned Kosovo conflict in full flow also, the bewildered Irish and Maltese each had three separate trips to the war torn region to come over the next 13 months in what was one of the most politically tense groups of all time.

Since the initial break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic, the Serbian-dominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was determined to block any attempts at secession from the semi-autonomous region of Kosovo – inhabited by a majority of ethnic Albanians but with a sizable Serbian minority – prompting the Yugoslavian army to enter the territory in March 1998. With the situation degrading, the Irish went to a tense Belgrade in November for the first of their eastern journeys and were defeated 1-0 by the Yugoslavs.


Celebrations in Red Star Stadium as the home side take the lead, Yugoslavia vs Ireland, 18/11/1998.

As atrocities were committed in Kosovo under the guise of suppressing rebel forces – namely the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA – and international intervention loomed, on March 2nd, 1999, Red Star Belgrade agreed to move their remaining Champions League fixtures to Sofia, Bulgaria. It would only be the start of the turmoil that, in football terms, mostly happened to revolve around Group 8.

On March 23rd, NATO began it’s strategic bombing of targets in Belgrade. The next day, UEFA postponed three upcoming fixtures in the group that were set to take place in the Balkan area: Macedonia vs Ireland and Yugoslavia vs Croatia, both originally scheduled for March 27th, and Yugoslavia vs Macedonia on March 31st.

Proving that sport and politics definitely do mix, star defender Siniša Mihajlović pledged his support for president Slobodan Milošević while leaving the country on March 24th, before the Yugoslav football federation urged any players at clubs in NATO countries to boycott their employers. Real Madrid’s Predrag Mijatović, draped in the Yugoslav flag, and three others proceeded to protest outside Spain’s US embassy on March 27th/28th, while Crystal Palace’s Sasa Curcic picketed outside 10 Downing St in London – they were among 40 Yugoslav pros to strike around Europe.

On the 25th UEFA also postponed the imminent visit of Scotland to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group 9, as flights to the area could not be guaranteed safety. On the same day, the Irish demonstrated their desire to take advantage of the tragic situation by outlining intentions to ask the governing body to have their defeat in Belgrade the previous November annulled and replayed on a neutral ground, should other countries fixtures away to the Yugoslavs also be moved out of the conflict zone.

As NATO’s operation intensified, UEFA were forced on March 28th to suspend more upcoming qualifiers in the area – Malta’s visit to Croatia, and Slovenia vs Albania from Group 2 – before on March 29th the saga continued to rock the world of football when Metz’ Serbian forward Vladan Lukić vowed to down tools for three months in protest against the strikes (which surely had NATO bosses shaking in their boots). And on April 1st, the Yugoslavs’ own league was suspended for the duration of the war.

Over the coming weeks, developments included Real Madrid issuing a £23,000 fine to Mijatović for his absence from the team, and Albania’s Group 2 qualifier with Latvia being moved from Tirana to the Latvian capital of Riga. The next area of contention would be far away from eastern Europe, however, as peaceful Dublin unexpectedly became the focus ahead of Ireland vs Yugoslavia on June 5th.

Adding an extra element to the fixture, in May the Irish government accepted more than 1000 Kosovar refugees from the 80,000 forced to flea the area (who were lucky compared to nearly 9000 Kosovo Albanians killed or declared missing during the 16 month disaster). Although Ireland wasn’t a member of NATO, the government held grave concerns about the situation in Kosovo and refused to grant visas to the Yugoslav squad for their upcoming visit (citing overwhelming public outcry in support of cancelling the match, which wasn’t exactly the case).

UEFA threatened Ireland with football sanctions of it’s own – including possible expulsion from the competition at worst – should the match not go ahead, while the Football Association of Ireland plead it’s helplessness in the face of the government’s decision (with one FAI official coyly commenting on how few international fixtures would be left if every state’s human rights records were held to account). Calls from Geneva (UEFA’s base) reiterated that sports and politics should not meet in their domain and hence there was no reason for the match to be cancelled, but some in the Irish media argued that accepting the Yugoslavs as guests would legitimise their regime’s war crimes.

Although on June 3rd Milošević accepted terms of a peace plan, it was too late and the match that weekend did not go ahead. But on June 8th, the Yugoslav players would be accepted into Greece for their game against Malta on the neutral soil of PAOK’s Toumba Stadium in Thessaloniki. With the War officially coming to an end a few days later on June 11th, Yugoslavia’s trip to Dublin was finally rescheduled for September 1st, as a light fine and reimbursement of the Yugoslavs’ original travel costs turned out to be UEFA’s only punishments for the Irish.


FR Yugoslavia vs Malta on neutral soil gets underway in PAOK's Toumba Stadium, Greece, Euro 2000 qualifier, 08/06/1999.

But before that, there was the small matter of the rescheduled first ever meeting between Yugoslavia and Croatia on August 18th, 1999, in Belgrade. The Croats’ victorious but brutal War of Independence against the Serbs had concluded less than four years previous, with the final months running concurrent to the national team’s own successful Euro 96 qualification campaign.

The country’s star debut at the Euros, followed by third place at World Cup 98, had put it on the footballing map ahead of their former federal partners, as Yugoslavia’s return to tournament was less inspired (one can’t help but wonder at far they might have gone had the original SFR Yugoslavia remained united, which was never going to happen of course). While on-the-pitch superiority mattered some, the approx. 15,000 dead or missing Croats between 91 and 95 (compared to less than 7000 Serbs) made the the two games to come in Group 8 as charged as any in football history.

If the crowd in Windsor Park in 1993 had been 99.9% home supporters, 100% of the nearly 50,000 in Red Star Stadium were there hoping to see Yugoslavia win. Of course, for their own safety, no away fans were permitted, as evident by the overwhelmingly booed Croatian national anthem. Despite the away side hitting the woodwork more than once, a 0-0 draw was played out in the hostile atmosphere.


The players line-up ahead of the history FR Yugoslavia v Croatia match in Red Star Stadium, with a flag hanging in the Serbian national colours visible on the left, Euro 2000 qualifier, 18/08/1999.

Croatian players sing their national anthem as boos reign down from the home Yugoslavian fans in Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, World Cup qualifier, 18/08/1999.

Over the coming weeks, an Irish win over Yugoslavia in Dublin, a Croatian win over Ireland in Zagreb, and back to back Yugoslavian defeats of the Macedonians (with all sides picking up maximum points against Malta along the way) meant that everything was to play for going into the last series of games. While a win for either side in the upcoming Croatia-Yugoslavia match on October 9th would guarantee at least a play-off place, with a draw favouring Yugoslavia, the Irish could top the group if they were victorious in Macedonia at the same time – a location where they had already infamously been defeated in April 1997.

Before the hot game in Zagreb, locals concluded that it was wise for no away supporters to be allowed at the stadium as their presence may have resulted in the use real weapons such as grenades and machine guns, rather that mere football hooliganism. Around the city anti-Serb graffiti was common sight, accompanied by the colours of Dinamo Zagreb, with the match set to take place in the very same Stadion Maksimir where the infamous riot in 1990 between home fans/players and Yugoslav police at a domestic game against Red Star had been credited by some as a pre-cursor to the war.


Anti-Serb and Dinamo Zagreb's Bad Blue Boys graffiti in Zagreb ahead of the Croatia vs Yugoslavia Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

On the evening of the match, the Maksimir filled up hours ahead of kick-off, with banners and songs celebrating the war plentiful. Particularly highlighted was Vukovar, the city that had been destroyed and taken by the Serbs in 1991 after a 87 day siege, before finally being handed back in 1998 as part of the Croatians’ 1995 Erdut Agreement with ethnic Serb leaders in the east of the country (working under instruction from Belgrade).


A huge Croatian flag commemorating the battle and siege of Vukovar in the war of independence against the Serbs, Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 09/10/1999.

The atmosphere builds inside the Maksimir Stadium ahead of the Croats vs Yugoslavia Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

When the teams emerged and lined-up for the anthems, the negative noise that greeted the Yugoslav’s ‘Hej, Slaveni’ (Hey, Slavs), which several of  the Croatian players had once stood for while representing Yugoslavia pre-1992, was even louder and more vitriolic than that heard at Red Star Stadium. Somewhat surprisingly, only Serbian patriot Mihajlović and captain Dragan Stojković sang their country’s song in the face of the torrent of abuse.


The Yugoslavian national anthem is played and sung in Zagreb ahead of Croatia vs Yugoslavia, Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

With the contest at last underway, the home side took the lead after 20 minutes thanks to a goal from Alen Bokšić, one of those who had been selected for Yugoslavia – at World Cup 90 no less – but never actually been capped for them. Besides a shared love of football, something that actually united Croats and Serbs was also a love for pyro, of which there was in abundance from the jubilant home fans.


Pyro on the pitch during Croatia vs Yugoslavia, Euro 2000 qualifier, 09/10/1999.

But only five minutes later, and again in six further minutes, the away team stunned Zagreb into silence twice with near identical goals: in-swinging Mihajlović free-kicks from the right met by glancing headers from Mijatović and Dejan Stanković, the latter of which agonisingly slipped through the hands of Croatia’s Dražen Ladić in goal. Mario Stanić equalised shortly after half-time to give his country hope, but 2-2 it remained until the end.


Disaster for Croatia as Stanković's header and Stanić's slip-up, as well as Macedonia's draw with Ireland, ultimately send Yugoslavia to Euro 2000, 09/10/1999.

Meanwhile down the road in Skopje, Ireland played out a living nightmare in the Gradski Stadium for the second time in successive campaigns by conceded a last minute equalisier against FYR Macedonia, dropping them into the play-off position. For Croatia this meant that not only had their mortal enemies knocked them out of the Euros, but a fellow-former Yugoslav republic – who also even had the word “Yugoslav” in it’s title – had contributed to Yugoslavia in fact topping the group by sheer luck on Croatian soil.

As Yugoslavia’s stars celebrated a ticket to the low-countries for the following summer on Maksimir’s cold pitch that night, Croatians could only wallow at being struck by an unexpected ghost of the break-up of the region years earlier. But it would turn out to be the last time that the fixture would take place in this form, as well as ‘Yugoslavia”s last ever qualification, as FR Yugoslavia morphed into Serbia and Montenegro in 2003 followed by an independent Serbia in 2006.


Yugoslavia's players celebrate Euro 2000 qualification, while Croatia's fans come to terms with the harsh reality that they won't be there, 09/10/1999.

With even Kosovo officially declaring independence from the Serbs in 2008, Croatia finally met this new streamlined Serbia in 2013 via World Cup 2014 qualifying, signaling the start of a new era. And with the renaming of FYR Macedonia to North Macedonia in 2019 (the reasons behind which we don’t have time to get in to even here), the last trace elements of Yugoslavia disappeared from the map, footballing or otherwise.

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YouTube Links:

Northern Ireland vs Ireland, 1993
North Korea vs South Korea, 1993
Italy vs Croatia, 1994
USA vs Iran, 1998
USA vs Iran, 1998
Yugoslavia vs Ireland, 1998
Yugoslavia vs Malta, 1999
Yugoslavia vs Croatia, 1999
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999

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