Serbians are bidding for national unity through football but few listen
Belgrade was once hostile territory but not any more, writes David Kelly
Belgrade remains a city haunted by its past and visibly unsure of its present. Outwardly, it portrays the brashness and sleekness befitting the youthful age of its independent status yet the scars of ancient turmoil are not easily hidden.
The old town heaves with porcelain-skinned beauties amidst a backdrop of occasional architectural splendour.
Its citizens are distinctly proud of their sense of place but the sensation of history still reverberates.
Our taxi driver is keen to point out the birthplace of tennis legend Novak Djokovic and the magnificent Orthodox Church across the road which, at lavish expense, the multiple Grand Slam winner is helping to restore to former grandeur.
Yet he also points out to us, without superfluous comment, the TV station bombed by NATO at the end of the last century; Ireland's hotel base for the fraught qualifying game here in 1998 was a few doors away.
The hip crowd in the old town remember nothing of this but neither are they allowed to forget their country's recent brutal past.
Our journey from the area strips history like layers of an onion.
Here, an Ottoman Empire monument, there the statue of 19th century Prince Mihailo.
Nearly three-quarters of the city was destroyed in WWII: elsewhere, bullet holes riddle buildings from bombings a generation ago.
One would think football may unite this nation; it rarely has. Violence clings to it as if a hereditary virus of race.
Our guide will not be in the 53,000 Marakana stadium tonight - indeed, it may well be less than half-full.
The national team, like the country itself, is now a becalmed beast.
"I am Red Star," he harrumphs, referring to the 1991 European club champions. Fans of Partizan, their hated rivals, will not attend either.
"Maybe I watch at home," is his chuckling concession.
Belgrade's reputation as a hostile environment retains truth merely within internecine derby strife; Serbia lost four of their five competitive matches at home last time out and Ireland have been to two major championships since the home side went to the 2010 World Cup.
There, they sensationally defeated Germany but were eliminated by Australia; a perfect summation of their brief ten-year history, since Montenegro declared their independence in 2006.
Two abandoned clashes in recent times hint at virile political undertones; Kosovo's World Cup debut this evening still rankles here, too.
With a new man - Slavoljub Muslin - is renowned as a disciplinarian who demands excellence; a vast collection of P45s (18) suggests it has hitherto eluded the prosaic 63-year-old.
Good morning, he is addressed. An early one, too. "We will see if it is a good morning tomorrow."
Locals speak of "shock therapy" in the 120 day honeymoon of his short, three friendly match reign, but he is merely trying to re-engage a nation with its team.
Former defender Nemanja Vidic will attend this evening and the presence of suspended Premier League stars Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov reflects the concerns of a manger seeking to excite his sluggish supporters with a show of unity.
"They have shown their support for the team and that is going to be important for us in the future," says the manager, flanked by his remaining star, Chelsea full-back Branislav Ivanovic, whose glittering club career has not yet translated to achievement with the Eagles.
"I have to say that this might be one of the more difficult qualifying campaigns that I have seen in a while," assesses the Premier League and Champions Cup winner, who will win his 88th cap this evening.
"The system of the group and the system of qualifying is not easy. It's a long road ahead to the World Cup. It's two years of qualifying.
"What is important is the national coach has planted the will to succeed in all of us. The important thing is to start well, to start with a win and we will take it from there."
Serbia have not played since June 5, a 1-1 draw with Euro 2016 bound flops Russia in Monaco, after kick-starting his reign with two wins against Cyprus and Israel; Ireland, in contrast, have played seven times, including the emotional rollercoaster in France.
Hence the perhaps thinly-veiled suggestions from some of our hosts that the latest to take on the seemingly poisoned national reins has enjoyed a honeymoon period.
"I don't know if we can speak about shock therapy or a honeymoon period or anything like that, but what I have seen of the team in these three matches is that there is a great level of motivation and a great level of concentration," adds the manager.
"Serbia will go into each match playing for a win. This match is very, very important to start well, but it is not crucial.
"We have seen Ireland play in France. We have seen them play defensively; but then, against Italy, they play for the win when they needed a win. We need to play our own way," Muslin explained.
Asked was there still a lingering sense of euphoria following his spring appointment, the manager dolefully demurred.
"There was no euphoria on my part. I came here ready to do well and I am just excited to be here."
Ivanovic reckons Ireland are the "most difficult team" in the group to face first; "they make up for their faults by giving all and playing to the last minute."
Serbia's faults seem available to be exploited by an Irish team still surfing the wave of summer confidence.