World Cup 2010 profile – Serbia – Expectation rising for strong Serbian squad

Throughout the 1990s football fans in Serbia looked on in envy as the likes of Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker propelled neighbours Croatia to unexpected triumphs on the world football stage. Now it’s the Serbians’ time to shine, with a gifted generation of players emerging following several impressive triumphs at youth and Under-21 level. Serbian athletes have always had to deal with a poor sporting infrastructure but have seemingly punched above their weight with a number of notable triumphs by Serbian athletes in other sports in recent years. Since the break up of the former Yugoslavia, the football team representing Serbia has yet to make an impact on the world stage in their various guises, but after an impressive qualification campaign, hopes of success in South Africa are high throughout the nation’s 7m population.

The Serbian Superleague suffers from a lack of funding, meaning most of the top domestic players compete in leagues across the rest of Europe, with no recent Serbia call-ups playing in the national league. There are 16 teams that compete in the top division with only Vojvodina breaking the Belgrade hegemony in recent seasons. Serbian teams no longer make much of an impact in European football and the current incarnation of Red Star are a far cry from the great European Cup-winning side of 1991. Serbia began as the national team of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992 with the team consisting of players from Serbia and Montenegro. Due to United Nations international sanctions, the first international tournament they were allowed to participate in was France 98, which they entered as many people’s dark horses to win, but were eliminated by the Netherlands in the second round. During Euro 2000 they were once again eliminated by the Netherlands and have failed to make an impact in any major tournament since then competing as Serbia and Montenegro. The 2010 World Cup will be their first tournament competing as Serbia with the secession of Montenegro in 2006.

Serbia’s route to South Africa could hardly have been more impressive. After a defeat to France in their second qualification game, they embarked on a run of six straight wins followed by a draw at home to France and then an emphatic 5-0 win over Romania. A surprise defeat in their final group game in Lithuania mattered not as they had already qualified for the World Cup as Group Seven winners. Serbia sit 16th in FIFA’s World Rankings, which suggests they represent solid opposition in a strong group. Their opening game will see them take on Ghana and it does not get much easier with Germany and Australia to follow. However, after an impressive qualification campaign they will head to South Africa with high expectations and winning their group is certainly not beyond them. They will do well not to get too complacent as they entered the 2006 World Cup with similarly high expectations, having gone unbeaten in qualification, only to crash out in the first round, losing all three of their games and conceding 10 goals.

Several of Serbia’s players are household names and can be found playing for top clubs all over Europe. Their defence is formidable with Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic usually starting as well as Sevilla’s Ivica Dragutinovic. In midfield Dejan Stankovic is the household name and at the age of 31 this World Cup may well be his last international tournament. As captain he is seen as very much the go to man in the team, his twin responsibilities of leadership and playmaking will be invaluable to the Serbian’s chances. He may well need to chip in with goals as if the Serbians have a weakness, it is probably up front – there top scorer is Nikola Zigic who has managed 16 goals in 41 appearances.

They are coached by Radomir Antic, whose managerial career has mostly been in La Liga where he has coached both Real Madrid and Barcelona to varying degrees of success but led Athletico Madrid to a historic league and cup double in the 1995/96 season. He took the Serbia job in 2008 – his first managerial role for four years – and immediately set about transforming the team to play an attacking 4-4-2 based on a solid back four and the midfield scheming of Stankovic. There is much excitement across the country at the prospects of their national team going into the World Cup but they may suffer from playing away from their Stadion Crvena Zvezda, a cauldron of a stadium where they remained unbeaten during qualification. Their away record is less than impressive and they may suffer without the advantage of a partisan following breathing down the necks of their opponents.

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