Yugoslavia’s road to Euro 2000 was chaotic. By then, of course, it consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, but its name hadn’t yet caught up with the reality. Nearly three months of Nato air-strikes against Yugoslavia in spring 1999 because of the conflict in Kosovo had forced the match calendar to be changed as games were postponed and one fixture, the 4-1 win over Malta, was switched to Thessaloniki in Greece. Throughout there was the threat that Yugoslavia might be suspended, as they had been in 1992.

Those delays also had an effect on other teams. ‘We were in our training camp when we heard the news that the Belgrade game was postponed due to Nato air strikes,’ said the Croatia midfielder Aljoša Asanović. ‘The match was due to be played on 27 March. We expected a postponement, as the situation in Serbia was really chaotic. It was decided that we would continue the preparations until our match against Malta in Zagreb, four days later, on 31 March. But a couple of days later we learned that that match was also postponed [because of Zagreb’s proximity to the war zone]. The situation in our group became irregular. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know whether the match in Belgrade would be played at all or whether it would be maybe moved to a neutral venue. Uefa set a new date, 18 August. In short, everything became mysterious. We were not happy that the Malta game was postponed as well.”

There were also more customary football problems for Yugoslavia to deal with: they had sacked their coach Milan Živadinović midway through the campaign. He had taken over the national team after the 1998 World Cup and had begun with a win at home to Ireland and home and away victories over Malta. He was unhappy with his salary and used his holiday in July to negotiate a deal in Saudi Arabia with Al Nasr to take over the club the following year. The heads of the Yugoslav football federation (FSJ), Miljan Miljanić and Branko Bulatović, dismissed him immediately. That was just four weeks before the postponed game against Croatia. The FSJ offered the job to Radomir Antić, but he refused, and eventually Vujadin Boškov was appointed. It was a choice that seemed forced upon them, given that the career of the 68-year-old Boškov was in clear decline, but due to the time-pressure and the fact that other candidates were not available at that moment, the former coach of Feyenoord, Real Madrid, Roma, Napoli and Sampdoria took charge.

Boškov’s first two games were less than impressive: a 0-0 draw in Belgrade against Croatia and a 2-1 defeat to Ireland at Lansdowne Road. But in their next two matches Yugoslavia bounced back with two victories against FYR Macedonia (3-1 in Belgrade and 4-2 in Skopje) and four weeks later followed the decisive game in Zagreb.

Croatia had had an erratic campaign. They lost 2-0 in Dublin, drew 1-1 in Skopje but achieved narrow home wins against Macedonia and Malta. Nonetheless, after a 1-0 victory over Ireland – Šuker scored the goal in stoppage time – they still had a chance of qualification if they won that final game against Yugoslavia. They were under huge pressure, not just for sporting reasons but because of the atmosphere in Croatia: just four years after the end of the war, this was far more than a game. There was widespread optimism, with many comparing the match to the Champions League qualifier two years earlier between Croatia Zagreb (as Dinamo were then known) and Partizan than had been won 5-0. “Yugoslavia will be lucky if they lose only by one or two goals,” said Croatia’s coach Miroslav Blažević with characteristic bombast. “I’ll hang myself if we don’t win.”

Yugoslavia topped the group with 16 points, followed by Ireland on 15 and Croatia on 14. With Ireland expected to beat Macedonia, Yugoslavia knew that a win would see them qualify automatically while a draw would probably earn them second place in the group and a play-off.

Away fans were banned, as they had been a month and a half earlier in Belgrade, but there was still an enormous security operation. Official figures were never revealed, but it’s estimated that around 3,000 policemen and 2,000 stewards were deployed in and around the stadium. I remember that during the short bus ride from Hotel Esplanade in the city centre to the stadium, I saw more policemen than I’d ever seen in my life for a football game. On both sides of the street there was a policeman every 10m or so. It goes without saying that the Maksimir stadium was packed, with an official attendance of 38,743. Only 16,412 tickets had been put on sale and people fainted in the long queues, with fans unhappy about such a limited offer. The chairman of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS), Vlatko Marković, was not impressed. “People also faint when they wait for tickets for a Rolling Stones concert,” he said.

Croatia were without the injured Zvonimir Boban, while the defenders Slaven Bilić, Dario Šimić and Igor Štimac were unavailable, although given the expectation of an attacking game that caused less concern. Yugoslavia, meanwhile, were without Vladimir Jugović. Boškov had already announced one week earlier that Ivica Kralj would be in goal. Obviously, Boškov wanted to boost Kralj’s self-confidence and to take some pressure off him, given that the Croatian media had suggested Kralj was the weakest link in Yugoslavia’s team. Countless times he was reminded that he was coming back to the stadium where he conceded eight goals in two games – 5-0 with Partizan against Croatia Zagreb in July 1997 and 3-1 with Porto in a Champions League group game in November 1998. On top of that, after some poor performances, Kralj had lost his place as first choice at PSV Eindhoven. But Boškov trusted him, or at least he convincingly pretended that he did.

The crowd gave the visitors a hostile welcome. There were chants of “Ubij, ubij, ubij, Srbina” (“Kill, kill, kill the Serb”), but that was to be expected and, as it were, normal given the animosity between Croats and Serbs. It was the same when Croatia came to Belgrade in August; it was also the same 14 years later when Croatia and Serbia played in the World Cup qualifiers for Brazil 2014.

The Yugoslav anthem was booed so it was barely audible. It was an anthem most people in Serbia and Montenegro were not happy with, for the simple reason that it was the anthem of former Yugoslavia: Hej Slaveni was regularly booed at home games too. Siniša Mihajlović, however, was apparently in a special mood that night and he was the only Yugoslav player who proudly and loudly sang the anthem. Perhaps it was an early indication that it would be he who would play a crucial role and in a way decide the outcome of the game. He was seemingly so relaxed that shortly before kick-off, while the teams posed for photos, he ran over to the East tribune where a huge Croatian flag with the slogan “Vukovar ‘91” was displayed and crossed himself three times, as Orthodox Serbs do. Local fans of course interpreted this as provocation, but Mihajlović had been born in Vukovar and had spent 19 years of his life in Borovo Selo, 10 km away. On the morning of match, Mihajlović had chatted in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel with a group of people, among them a couple of kids in Croatia shirts. He had signed autographs and posed for photographs. Who were these Mihajlović fans in the middle of Zagreb? They were his relatives; his mother Viktorija is a Croat. The match in Zagreb was definitely a special game for him.

The Croatian anthem was sung raucously, under the gaze of the state president Franjo Tuđman. In Belgrade, the captains Mijatović and Boban had embraced after exchanging pennants, but this time the captains Šuker and Stojković just exchanged a handshake. The referee was José María García-Aranda from Spain. On the evening before the match I saw him in the city centre and wished him good luck for the match, for which he thanked me. It turned out that it was a game where, apart from his refereeing skills and experience (it was two years before his retirement and he officiated the 1998 World Cup semi-final France v Croatia), he needed also a healthy portion of luck to complete his task successfully.

From the very start the Croats attacked, living up to their nickname Vatreni (the fiery). The atmosphere was tense and nervous and the first incident came as early as the second minute. Croatia’s playmaker Aljosa Asanović battled with the Yugoslavia right-back Zoran Mirković on the left side of the box and as he shielded the ball he caught Mirković in the face with his elbow. The referee gave a free-kick to Yugoslavia, but Mirković retaliated and within a few seconds there was a melée involving a dozen players from both sides. When situation calmed down, García-Aranda warned Asanović and fans from the North tribune – the stand of Dinamo Zagreb’s ultras Bad Blue Boys – threw torches, firecrackers and smoke bombs onto the pitch.

The match was physical, hard and with many fouls. Croatia had the initiative as they sought to play fast, direct passes to their strikers Šuker and Boksić. One such pass was well intercepted by goalkeeper Ivica Kralj, just before Boksić could gather. In that opening spell, Yugoslavia could do little but defend and when they gained possession they did little other than hit long balls, many of them aimless. Only when Stojković and Mijatović got hold of the ball in midfield was there any attempt at constructive build-up play. Most Croatian attacks went down their left, either via Boksić, Asanović or Jarni.

After one such attack Croatia came very close to opening the scoring. In the 18th minute Asanović sent over a fine cross, Šuker jumped and directed a firm and precise header towards the post only for Kralj to dive and get his right hand to the ball before Goran Đorović completed the clearance. The Croatians claimed that the ball had crossed the line; Šuker protested with both hands in the air, speaking to both the referee and his assistant, but they didn’t give the goal. Replays are unclear, but Kralj’s right arm, certainly, was a long way behind the line.

Two minutes later, though, the opening goal did arrive. The centre-back Igor Tudor sent a high ball to the left-hand side, where near the halfway-line Šuker won an aerial duel against Đukic, shook him off and stormed forwards. Mihajlović and Đorović backed off. Đorović lost Boksić, perhaps trying to play him offside, allowing Šuker to play the ball into his strike-partner’s path. The Lazio forward beat Kralj with a well-placed left-foot effort despite the keeper getting both hands to the ball.

Yugoslavia were down and two minutes later they could have been out. Soldo broke through on the right, cut into the box and played the ball to Šuker, whose shot missed the target by a few centimetres. Blažević, after jumping to his feet, returned to the bench and lit another cigarette.

At that point, Croatia seemed in control, a second goal just a matter of time. Yet five minutes later, they were behind. Jokanović was fouled after 26 minutes, a little over 30m out. Mihajlović took the free kick, crossing into the box where Mijatović scored with the back of his head. The ball perhaps glanced in off Tudor’s back – replays are inconclusive – and Drazen Ladić perhaps could have reacted quicker, but the ball ended up in the top corner. Against the run of play, Yugoslavia were level.

The second Yugoslav goal came from a similar source. This time Stojković was fouled, again just too far out for Mihajlović. Again he crossed and again a Yugoslav player, this time Dejan Stanković, attempted a back header. He misjudged it though and the ball glanced off the top of his shoulder. It seemed that Ladić had caught the ball, but it slipped through his hands and as he scrambled after it, the impression of clumsiness was only reinforced. Serbian fans later joked that he resembled a mole as he crawled back to the goal-line.

It was a shocking blow, but Croatia still had an hour to score two goals. Their play lost its flow but they still had chances to level before half-time. Stanić headed wide from a free-kick and then, in the 38th minute, there were vociferous Croatian appeals for a penalty as Boksić went down. Kralj, though, had clearly got to the ball first.

Three minutes later, the game lurched Croatia’s way. Yugoslavia were awarded a free-kick as Jarni pushed Mirković, who fell to the ground. Jarni was furious, and stood over Mirković, abusing him. Neither party has ever revealed what was said, but Mirković reacted by grabbing Jarni’s testicles. He was sent off. “I did an unbelievably stupid thing,” Mirković said later in a TV documentary. “I could not control my character, my emotions. I tried several times to analyse myself and that action of mine, but I could not come to a conclusion.”

After the game I asked Albert Nađ, who had done a good job at the back of midfield, how Mirković was. He replied that he was still white as a sheet, aware no doubt that his moment of madness could have cost Yugoslavia their place at the Euros. In the dressing-room, he apologised to everybody. Boškov’s assistant was Zoran Filipović. “In the build-up to the game I had a one-on-one conversation with Mirković,” he said. “We all knew about his short fuse and I warned him that, no matter the tense and hostile atmosphere, he had to watch his behaviour. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was in vain. In the heat of the moment he did what he did and we were left with ten men.”

The Yugoslavs reorganised their defence by moving the left-back (actually a makeshift left-back) Goran Đorović to right-back, while Nađ was moved to the left-back position. Dejan Stanković took a more defensive role, Mijatović dropped into midfield and they continued with a 4-4-1 formation. It also helped that all that happened just a few minutes before the half-time interval.

As Croatia sought to take instant advantage, Stanić fired over from close range and then, in first-half injury-time, Šuker unleashed a ferocious shot from 20 yards that Kralj saved superbly. “What a save by Kralj! He is not a king, but an emperor!” shouted Milojko Pantić, the commentator on Yugoslav TV, playing on the fact that kralj means “king”.

Croatia had been the better team in the first half, they had scored a fine goal from open play, they had perhaps been denied a goal that should have stood, they had missed some good chances and yet they were 2-1 down, Yugoslavia having scored from the only real efforts they had had on goal.

But the second half began just as Croatia would have wanted, with a quick equaliser. Šuker played the ball to Boksić on the left flank. He took on the centre-back Đukic and managed to cross for an unmarked Stanić to score with a header. It was a decisive move by Croatia, but at the same time it was poor defending by Yugoslavia. Đukic wasn’t aggressive or determined enough to block Boksić’s cross, while in the middle neither Mihajlović nor Đorović were alert to the on-rushing Stanić. 2-2 and the Maksimir was again transformed into a cauldron.

However, as the minutes passed, Croatia’s man advantage was far from obvious and Yugoslavia had some chances of their own. Ladić saved from Stanković after 52 minutes, leading to a corner. Or, more accurately, three corners, all of them taken by Mihajlović. The first two were dangerous balls played in to the near post that Tudor headed behind. The third was a shot, trying to beat Ladić with a curler to his far post, but the ball went wide.

The weary Stojković was removed after 53 minutes for the right-back Dražen Bolić. That seemed a sign Yugoslavia were going to play more defensively but three minutes later Nađ was replaced by the quick and skilful winger Ljubinko Drulović – fresh legs for a possible counter-attack to finish Croatia off.

Indeed, Yugoslavia had two fine chances to score. In the 63rd minute Mijatović, who became more and more influential as the game went on, laid in Savo Milosević, who put his shot wide. A minute later Mijatović missed a golden opportunity, bursting into the box from the right, getting past two defenders and Ladić, but sending his shot just over the crossbar.

Then, amid the intensity, a movement that offered a reminder that this was only football and that friendship between opponents was still possible. Most in the ground probably missed it, but on television it was clear. Mihajlović drew a save from Ladić with a long-range free-kick and as he jogged back to his position, found Šuker running alongside him. The two exchanged smiles and then a high five as Šuker, presumably, made some joke about the free-kick.

Šuker then had two chances to put Croatia ahead, driving over from the edge of the box and then just failing to make contact at the near post as Boksić crossed low from the left. With 20 minutes remaining, there was a sense that Croatia were beginning to run out of steam, but the crowd was not, remaining as noisy as ever.

Mijatović, having shot wide from just outside the box was withdrawn with quarter of an hour to go, replaced by Dejan Savićević, Yugoslavia’s third captain of the game, Stojković having given the armband to Mijatović. Blažević responded by taking off Boksić for the young Croatia Zagreb striker Josip Šimić, the younger brother of Dario, a decision for which he was widely criticised by local media. Yet Šimić had a great chance to grab a winner, picked out in the box by Šuker only to shoot wide with his first touch.

Blažević, gambling everything, took off the centre-back Tudor for the forward Milan Rapaić, but Croatia could never establish any rhythm in those final minutes, thwarted in part by Yugoslavia’s time-wasting. The treatment Jokanović received for a supposed injury was particularly egregious. With three minutes remaining came news from Skopje: Macedonia had equalised against Ireland. That meant a draw would take Yugoslavia through as group winners (and a win put Croatia in Belgium and the Netherlands without recourse to a play-off).

Dejan Stanković, who had power for two games, started an energetic solo run, looked unstoppable and was brought down by centre-back Jurić, who was shown the yellow card. Mihajlović launched a free-kick bomb, but Ladić saved. When the fourth official showed that there would be three minutes stoppage time, Božo Sušec, who commented on the game on Croatian national TV, wished that the same happens like five weeks earlier against Ireland, when Šuker scored the 1-0 in the last minute of added time. “Sjetimo se Irske. Ponovila se Irska!” (“Let’s remember the Ireland game. Let it be repeated!”), Sušec said. But it wasn’t.

In the final minute Ladić wanted to send the ball deep inside Yugoslavia’s half, but instead he kicked it into out near the halfway-line. It was another hapless move that showed that it wasn’t his night. Shortly afterwards came the final whistle and the Yugoslav players started to celebrate as meanwhile it was confirmed that the Macedonia v Ireland game ended 1-1. The fans booed and instead of starting a big party, they were leaving the stadium in huge disappointment.

Yugoslavia got the result they needed, eventually not undeservedly, given their goal chances in the second half and that they bravely fought with ten men for more than 50 minutes. As for Croatia, perhaps they were punished for being too sure in their triumph. No matter if you are superstitious or not, I think it’s never good to celebrate a victory in advance. When Boksić scored the first goal, he took off his shirt and revealed a white t-shirt with “Euro 2000” on it.

“The Croats made the mistake to give the match ‘historical character’. They turned the game into a national affair. In their patriotism, to which they have of course the right, they maybe subconsciously politicised the game more than they wished. All that burdened the players who were not aware of that. Instead of practicing the defense from Mihajlović’s free-kicks with big spin (which, according to goalkeeper Ladić they didn’t do a single time during their preparations in Brežice), they were ‘winning’ with quotes, which at the end hit them like a boomerang.”- was a comment in the Belgrade news magazine Vreme (Time), by Vladimir Stanković, a doyen sports journalist.

I think that Stanković made a point, but I was wondering what my Croatian colleague Branko Stipković thought of it. So I emailed him Stanković’s comment and Stipković’s reply was short and clear.

“Vladimir is mainly right,” Stipković wrote back.

Stipković himself covered Croatia national team for many years for the Zagreb sports daily Sportske novosti. Here is his comment after the game.

“Boksić couldn’t do it alone, and without Boban there is no play. This draw is like a defeat. We did take the lead, but afterwards the panic in the opponent’s box was missing. Furthermore, we allowed that they score both times with their – backs. We had too many destroyers, too few creative players. We played feverishly, instead of playing calmly. Emotions destroyed us! And the visitors too, nothing can be held against them. Why captain Šuker had to be on each square meter of the pitch and to get worn out? Did he decide so, or was it a decision by national coach Blazević? Davor would have scored from those three, four chances at least twice if the ball had come to his left foot – and not to his right which serves him only for stepping on the gas in his car fleet. It’s an irrefutable truth that he scored at 0-0, but Aranda’s second assistant Riveiro made a disastrous mistake, although the ball clearly had crossed the line. That guy with the flag distanced us from the Euro finals probably as much as Mihajlović…”- Stipković wrote.

During the short flight from Zagreb to Belgrade, the mood was of course euphoric and we all treated ourselves with a couple of Croatian beers. Upon landing the first to congratulate and embrace the players and coaching staff was the FA president Miljan Miljanić, who had stayed back home for health reasons. Outside was a group of a couple of hundred fans and when the players came out the fans celebrated them with chants and songs. It was strange – or maybe not, if one knows the philosophy of football fans – that Mirković received the biggest applause. Due to his insane action his team could have lost the game, nevertheless for the fans he was a hero. Still, he paid the price for his move, as he was fined by UEFA with a two-match-ban and because of that wasn’t selected for Yugoslavia’s squad for Euro 2000.

At the same time in Zagreb it was quiet. There was a plan to throw a big party the day after the game. It was announced that there would be an ox on a spit and hectolitres of beer outside the nightclub Masters near the Maksimir stadium; an initiative by Bad Blue Boys and Blazević. In the build-up to the game Drazen Ladić joked to local media, “I’m really looking forward to the ox.” Ironically, it turned out that it was largely thanks to him that the ox stayed in the stable.