From Serbia with no love
Subdued Serbs are at a low ebb as Irish team comes in search of glory
The world has changed since Ireland last played a game of note in Belgrade, and so too has Serbia.
When Mick McCarthy's team played here in 1998, in a Euro qualifier, the opposition were called Yugoslavia, a name no longer used.
The city which hosted the game would soon be targeted by NATO bombs, and the scars remain. As the Irish team head from their hotel to the Red Star Stadium for tonight's fixture they will drive past the shell of the bombed-out Ministry of Defence, still in ruins, and their route skirts Belgrade's City Hall, which has a permanent memorial to the 'Heroes of Serbia', the 500 civilians who died in the bombing.
One thing has not changed, though. Serbia is still not in love with its football team.
Back then, when Ireland played in '98, the home fans at the Red Star Stadium were segregated, Red Star fans at one end, Partizan supporters at the other, thousands of angry young men who spent the entire evening singing abuse at each other and ignoring what was taking place on the field, too busy lobbing volleys of bile at each other to cheer the national team and make the place that so-called 'cauldron of hate' for Ireland.
Despite the presence of some big names (in Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic alone, Serbia have a star brighter than anyone in the Irish squad) and affordable ticket prices (cheap seats start at €3), the 53,000 capacity stadium will barely be half full for the visit of Ireland.
They've tried a few tricks to get people interested. One stand is being given over to schoolkids who are being let in for free. Former Serbian international Nemanja Vidic is coming along in an ambassadorial role, to try and spark interest.
They're also clutching to the coat-tails of other successes - Nemanja Matic, who is suspended for the game but has still travelled to Belgrade, has invited as a special guest his pal, Davor Stefanek, a hero in these parts for winning gold in Greco-Roman wrestling in Rio.
Football is at a low ebb here, a factor which has left locals subdued as Ireland visit and which could play in Ireland's favour tonight.
Remarkably, Ireland have one up on Serbia before a ball is kicked tonight as we still have a club involved in European competition (Dundalk) but Serbia, despite the profile and power of Red Star and Partizan, do not, although they do have 10 players with clubs competing in the Champions League (Ireland, sadly, have none).
Unlike Ireland, Serbia had a good Olympics - half of their 103 athletes in Rio came home with a medal of some sort, and none of their officials ended up in a Brazilian jail.
Basketball, volleyball and waterpolo are all a big deal here. And unlike in football, the Serbian side in those sports compete and compete well.
Serbia didn't just win gold in the men's waterpolo final, they beat Croatia, making the victory taste even sweeter. In basketball, the men won silver, a major achievement.
So the footballers have slid down in terms of the love of the people. In their last home competitive game, in the Euro qualifiers, even the lure of Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portugal side could not draw in a crowd bigger than 8,000, a third of the gate which paid in to see Ireland play against Oman last week.
With the players at their disposal, Serbia should be at a major finals all the time, but they have missed out on the last three tournaments, in which time Ireland have competed twice, our Championship-level players performing better as a unit than the Serbian side dotted with Premier League, La Liga and Champions League stars That annoys them.
Anger and resentment seethes through the city. On the wall of the stadium here in Belgrade is a mural saying 'UEFA Supports Terrorism', a dig at European football's governing body for admitting Kosovo as a member state.
Apart from the the usual tourist tat, almost every street stall in the city centre flogs t-shirts of Vladimir Putin. You can't buy a top with the face of the national team's captain, Ivanovic, on it but you can find one with the Russian leader, as Russia are still seen by most Serbs as an ally against the West.
Footballing heroes of past eras are not matched by the current crop, so Serbians look elsewhere for encouragement, a faint hope that a young squad can now deliver.
"Because it's the opening game of the competition, with everybody fresh, I think there will be great excitement. There seems to be a rejuvenation of Serbia with a new coach coming in who has done very well and I think it will be very, tough for us," Martin O'Neill said last night at his press conference in the match stadium.
No mention of a gauntlet of hate or 'Welcome to hell' signs, though. If Ireland's display in France energised the Irish support and made them adopt new heroes like Brady, Hendrick and Duffy, Serbia's players are still trying to make their fans love them.
"Our basketball and waterpolo teams have done well on the world stage, we need to do the same now, as well, we have to get the fans back." says midfielder Zoran Tosic.
A home win tonight would push Serbia that bit closer to Russia 2018, and get the fans, the nation, back on their side. Defeat would be a catastrophe and would give Ireland a massive boost to their World Cup hopes.
High stakes in Belgrade as Serbia holds its breath, waiting to be let down - the rest is up to Ireland.