Tuesday, 12 January 2010

32 For 2010: Serbia

You can't keep a good footballing nation down and while the state of Yugoslavia has been consigned to the world of dusty old Len Deighton novels, the nations that formed that Eastern Bloc political contrivance continue to produce good (if not great) footballing teams.

In the years that followed the brutal war in the Balkans which resulted in the break up of Yugoslavia, it was Croatia who kept the footballing flame alive internationally. They seemed to have carried on where the old Yugoslav team that was banished from the 1992 European Championships (a competition that they could definitely have won) left off. However, in recent years, other nations have emerged from the ashes to form competitive squads. Montenegro are no pushovers, Bosnia-Herzegovina's day will surely come in 2012 and of course, Serbia who competed as Yugoslavia until 2003 before changing to Serbia and Montenegro. Under this title they played in the 2006 World Cup. Probably their only meaningful contribution to that competition was on the receiving end of one of the greatest goals in World Cup history, a 24-pass move which resulted in Esteban Cambiasso's strike.

Only weeks beforehand the people of Montenegro voted to declare themselves an independent nation. Consequently, the final elements of the old Yugoslavian football entity were separated and Serbia continued alone.

The "new" team's first challenge was to qualify for Euro 2008. In other qualifying groups the 24 points they accumulated might have been enough to book themselves passage to Austria and Switzerland. Unfortunately for them, it was not enough to finish ahead of Poland and Portugal despite only losing twice in the qualifying campaign.

The Serbs were not to be denied a place in South Africa however. In 2008, the national federation sacked head coach Miroslav Dukic and appointed the legendary Raddy Antic. The former Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid coach enjoyed a glittering club career in Spain and was at the ideal stage of his life to take over his country's national team. Antic inherited a disunited squad and quickly set about restoring some harmony. Serbia won seven of their 10 qualifying games. They only lost twice and the second defeat was the final game of the campaign after they had secured qualification. Antic's men took full advantage of a weak French team to top Group 7 and spare themselves the hassle of the play-offs.

Top players in the squad include Manchester United defender Nemania Vidic and Inter's Dejan Stankovic. However, Serbia's player of the year is the CSKA Moskow midfielder Milos Krasić who has played in all ten qualifiers. Krasic is a tricky right winger with a penchant for neat footwork and giving fullbacks the slip. He score two goals in qualifying and created seven assists.

The top goal scorer in qualification was Standard Liege's striker Milan Jovanovic. Bundesliga fans will know Nevan Subotic, the talented centre half from Dortmund, and Marko Pantelic is one of the many reasons why Hertha Berlin are so awful since he left at the end of last season to go to Ajax.

Looking ahead to the World Cup finals, Serbia were drawn in Group D with Germany, Ghana and Australia. Conceivably every team in that group will believe that they can qualify for Stage 2 so it should be a pretty tight group. Should the Serbs finish behind Germany (the expected group winners) they can look forward to a Second Round clash with the winners of England and USA's group.

The future of Serbian football is a matter of concern. Domestically, there are claims of corruption and any lack of investment in youth development could spell trouble for their future prospects on the international stage. However, the Under-19s reached the semis of the 2009 European Championships losing to the winners and hosts, Ukraine ,which suggests that there's some grounds for optimism.

The region formerly known as Yugoslavia has a fine tradition of producing some magnificent footballers and football teams. Let's hope that tradition continues.

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