The U20 FIFA World Cup in South Korea is currently in progress. Twenty-four national teams are fighting for the right to call themselves the best team in the world. Among the teams battling away are England, France, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. Yet, in the Far East, the current holders are absent.
The Serbian national team were the best team two years ago when they lifted the trophy in New Zealand, yet this is the fifth consecutive U20 World Cup without the holders competing. The world will get a new champion.
During the previous 24 months, teams around the world were competing for the right to play in South Korea through various continental tournaments. In the process, the new generations of players were coming of age.
Serbia’s team, led by Veljko Paunović – now the head coach at MLS side Chicago Fire – conquered the world in 2015 with amazing team spirit and eye-pleasing football. More importantly, they also made a statement – Serbia’s national team will have a bright future.
Where are they now? How much did they improve since their coronation in New Zealand? Is Serbia on the path of making big results in the following decade? And what would be defined as a big success for Serbia? Answers to some of these questions are highly complex. That is why it is necessary to consider the wide range of factors which could affect them.
Serbia’s U20 team from 2015 had 21 players in the squad. The brightest stars were Sergej Milinković-Savić, Andrija Živković and Predrag Rajković. The older of the Milinković-Savić brothers (Sergej’s younger brother Vanja was reserve goalkeeper at the tournament) was awarded the Bronze Boot - the third-best player of the tournament - behind Brazil’s Danilo Barbosa (nowadays on loan from Braga at Standard Liege) and the first placed Adama Traore, Mali’s midfielder currently on loan at Rio Ave from Monaco.
Two years later, the feeling in Serbia is that FIFA’s committee undeservedly denied Milinković-Savić the Golden Boot after an astonishing tournament, leading Serbia to almost unimaginable heights. Sergej, as he is usually called due to his long surname, started his career for Novi Sad’s club Vojvodina, before moving to Genk in 2014. Not long after a great tournament in New Zealand, the Belgian side earned around €9m by selling him to Lazio. For the Rome-based club, Sergej already made 74 appearances and his great progress was particularly obvious last season – he scored seven goals and made 10 assists in 39 matches in 2016-17. At just 22, there is still plenty of room for improvement, but his presence in the middle of the pitch is remarkable and his technique is excellent for a young player who stands at 191 centimetres tall.
Great expectations are also on the shoulders of Benfica’s highly talented winger, Andrija Živković. The former Partizan player left the club after many controversies - mainly due to shady dealings by the Partizan board and the sale of part of his contract to a third party without Živković’s knowledge. His departure from the Belgrade club was bitter, following six months long ban from Partizan’s first team for not wanting to sign a new deal. Živković signed for Benfica as a free agent, but during last season he showed only glimpses of why he was nicknamed the “Serbian Messi”. His physique is reminiscent of the famous Argentinian; he also plays with his left foot and is quick and direct when taking on defenders.
Unlike Živković, Predrag Rajković is already part of the senior national team. Officially the best goalkeeper of the 2015 U20 World Cup, Rajković displayed great maturity on the pitch, behind the already well-drilled defence of Paunović’s team. His promotion to the senior team was expected and he is for some time now reserve to Vladimir Stojković – a goalkeeper with a similar path to Lukasz Podolski, never really shining in club football, yet always being one of the best performers for the national team. Still, the day when Rajković will become Serbia’s first goalkeeping choice is getting closer.
The U21 European Championships in Poland will feature the crux of the team which conquered the world two years ago. Nemanja Maksimović (FC Astana, joining Valencia on 1st July) proved countless times that he is the leader of this generation, scoring important goals on Serbia’s path to glory at the 2015 World Cup, but also scoring the winning penalty in the quarterfinal shootout versus the United States and the last goal of the tournament, in the 118th minute of the final match against Brazil.
Next to Maksimović will be Marko Grujić. He did not play a lot at the 2015 World Cup, due to injuries which kept him from having many club games that season, but only six months after the New Zealand triumph, Grujić signed for Liverpool in a €7m worth deal.
And though Grujić did not get many chances in Jürgen Klopp’s team – partly because of good displays from players in his central midfield position, partly because of Grujić’s injuries – his progress is evident. It is especially noticeable after his displays for Paunović.
Mijat Gaćinović and Vanja Milinković-Savić also deserve a mention. Gaćinović, Eintracht Frankfurt’s pacey winger played for Serbia’s A team in the World Cup qualifier against Georgia, scoring late in a 3-1 win this March. Milinković-Savić was the first choice goalkeeper during the U21 Euro qualifiers and from 1 July will become Torino’s goalkeeper. They will both be part of the U21 squad in Poland.
Meanwhile, not all the players made great improvements since 2015. Even though they are all still 21 or 22 years old, initial expectations of them were not fulfilled. After a great tournament, forward Staniša Mandić was not happy to be excluded from the U21 squad and he chose to accept the call-up from Montenegro and play for their national team. This season he played just 15 times in 37 Serbian Superliga matches for the eventually ninth-placed team, Čukarički.
The youngest member of Serbia’s golden team, Ivan Šaponjić (forward born in 1997), left Partizan just six months after the World Cup and moved to Benfica’s B team for which he only played around 30 matches in 18 months. Saša Zdjelar (defensive midfielder) has not enthused in the last two years and could be accompanied by some of the fringe players of Paunović’s team – Stefan Ilić, Miladin Stevanovič, Radovan Pankov and others. Vukašin Jovanović is the only exception. His move from Crvena Zvezda to Zenit was not the best solution for the young centre-back, but the loan to French side Bordeaux brought his career back on the right path. Jovanović played well for The Girondins and we will line up in Poland, too.
The World Cup winning team is not only measurable by the success and quality they displayed, but also by the team spirit. Their togetherness was evident even on television in Serbia, 11,000 miles away from where it all was happening. That team spirit often amplifies the players’ ability – a reason why few successful youth teams make the grade at senior level.
However, that does not seem to be the case with this team. 12 of the 23 players called up by Nenad Lalatović for the U21 European Championship in Poland are world champions. Yet, one of the stars – Sergej Milinković-Savić – will not be there, with Lazio refusing to let the player leave for international duty, as the tournament is not part of the official FIFA dates.
But can one predict the future success of senior teams based on the success of national youth teams? Great results in youth categories are definitely a good way of embedding a winning mentality in young players, something which Serbia’s national team has lacked in previous decades. Young players get accustomed to youth tournaments and, even in England, pundits talk about the national team being unable to play their best football in a tournament format.
If any generation of Serbian football is ready to make an impact, it is this one. Serbia were European champions in 2013 at the Under-19 level. Five players, therefore, managed to collect both the European and world title; goalkeeper Rajković, Sergej Milinković-Savić, Maksimović, Veljković and Gaćinović, while senior striker Aleksandar Mitrović was also part of that team. Winning is already embedded in this side.
Paunović’s squad showed a lot of nerve in New Zealand. They started the tournament with a 1-0 loss to Uruguay, but their determination did not fade. Mali and Mexico were routinely beaten, but in the Round of 16, they showed real courage. Hungary had the 1-0 lead for most of the match, but the then 17-year old Šaponjić resurfaced in the dying minutes of stoppage time to push Serbia into the extra-time. Even though right-back Gajić got his second yellow card less than a minute later, Serbia did not surrender. They worked industriously during extra-time to defend what they worked so hard for. In the dying minutes of the match, luck was on their side; Serbia scoring again after Šaponjić’s cross was deflected into Hungary’s net by Attila Talaber.
Against the United States, Paunović’s boys showed their maturity. After 120 minutes it was still goalless and, in spite of being close to defeat on several occasions during the shoot-out, Serbia managed to reach semifinals thanks to Rajković’s heroics in goal and Maksimović’s courageous penalty kick. For the semi-final match against Mali and the grand finale versus Brazil, the story was largely the same – Serbia would take the lead, their opponents would then equalise against the run of play, before putting it all to bed in extra-time. Against the African team, the decisive goal was once again scored by Šaponjić, while in the final match it would be Maksimović once more.
During four knock-out rounds, Serbia played eight 15-minute periods of extra time and came out of each one victorious.
The argument which would go against this hypothetical theory about future Serbian success would be the one from 10 years ago, at the 2007 U21 European Championship. Serbia, led by Miroslav Đukić, reached the final after four great displays in the previous rounds. They would be easily beaten by the hosts, Netherlands, led by the dynamic duo of Ryan Babel and Royston Drenthe –two players who failed to reach the heights expected of them.
That Serbia side displayed the future of the senior team for years to come. Some of the players who won silver medals during the summer of 2007 were Branislav Ivanović, Aleksandar Kolarov, Miloš Krasić, Zoran Tošić and Antonio Rukavina. They were all part of the side which qualified for 2010 World Cup in South Africa, ahead of France in their qualifying group.
Still, it remained the only tournament for which Serbia qualified for in those 10 years. It was more than a modest result from the team which also had players like Nemanja Vidić, Dejan Stanković, Nikola Žigić, Neven Subotić and others.
Hence, the Serbian public was several times deeply disappointed by their national team, expecting miracles and always getting hit by reality. Even when Serbia was eliminated from the World Cup in South Africa after finishing bottom of the group – behind Germany, Ghana and Australia – a big part of the public was still convinced that the team could have reached the semi-finals. If Ghana could reach the quarter-finals, Serbia should’ve gone further, thought the public.
Predicting the future is never easy, but this group of players gives more reasons for optimism than any other one before. The winning mentality is ingrained in those players who cried so hard after beating Brazil in Auckland. Yet, now it is crucial to not to let traditional Serbian mentality of resting on their laurels, pressuring players after one poorer result or, even worse, spoiling the atmosphere after one even remotely better result to resurface.
How much time is needed before a great youth team starts shining at senior level? Is there any precise answer? In a word, no. There is no real answer because there are no guarantees in football. It could take a span of five to seven years for these youth stars to peak for the senior side – Serbia must be prepared for that wait.
Giorgio Chiellini, Antonio Nocerino and Ricardo Montolivo all starred for Italy at the 2007 U21 championships, before leading the Azzurri to the 2012 senior final. In 2007, Argentina became world champions at the U20 World Cup; Sergio Aguero, Sergio Romero and Angel Di Maria all involved. 7 years later, they formed part of the senior side which lost to Germany in the World Cup.
Still, these examples are an indicator of another important thing – Italy and Argentina are historically much more successful football teams than Serbia. Their competitive mentality is basically palpable, while Serbia is at the beginning of their journey.
But, we get to maybe the most important topic – the change of mentality in Serbian football. What would actually be considered a success for Serbia? Is that qualifying for the World Cup or reaching the knock-out stages? Or is it maybe the quarter-final of the European Championship – a tournament they have not qualified for since 2000 when still part of Yugoslavia.
Everyone will give you a different answer to a question of what would be a great result for Serbia but it is this generation’s obligation to avoid excuses and achieve results.
Qualifying for the Euro 2020 is a must – two decades of missing out on the continental championship is unacceptable.
This generation, though, would have to set their targets high. Iceland and Wales’ exploits at Euro 2016 are the best indicator for what Serbia can achieve and maybe the new format of the European Championship really is a good reason why Serbia could realise their dreams in the continental tournament. Qualifying for the European Championships is easier than for the World Cup and last year’s tournament in France showed how much two sides of the bracket can be uneven, which inevitably had a lot of impact on Wales’ historic result.
So, is it, then, the European Championship semi-finals that Serbia should strive for? Or the Round of 16? From this point of view, that is less important. The most important thing is for Serbia to change its tradition of not playing in big tournaments into a tradition of always playing in big tournaments. That is something where Serbia could really look up to their western neighbour, Croatia.
The differences in results of Serbia and Croatia are quite obvious. Croatia was the third-placed team in 1998 World Cup, in 2008 they were a breath of fresh air led by Slaven Bilić before they were unlucky to lose late into the extra-time of the Euro quarter-final against Turkey, and later in 2016 Euros to eventual champions Portugal. During the same period, Serbia (or Yugoslavia) reached the Round of 16 in the 1998 World Cup and the quarter-final in Euro 2000, losing both times to the Netherlands, adding to that two poor World Cups in 2006 and 2010. However, differences in results between the two countries are not visible only in senior competitions, but also in youth categories.
Though, the situation is reversed. The Under-21 European Championship in Poland will the 12th since Croatia’s independence in 1992, but their team qualified only twice and on both occasions, they failed to progress from the groups. Serbia, on the other hand, ended up being runner-up twice in three years (2004 and 2007). In the Under-19 category, Croatia had slightly better results – they qualified five times, reaching the semis two times. Serbia, on the other hand, qualified seven times, reaching the semi-finals four times and also winning the tournament in 2013.
So, what does all this have to do with results at senior level? Croatia has notably achieved worse results than Serbia at youth level, but they have developed better players at senior level. Luka Modrić and Mateo Kovačić both play for Real Madrid, Mario Mandžukić is an important player at Juventus after his spells at Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, Ivan Rakitić won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2015, Šime Vrsaljko is at Atletico and Danijel Subašić is reliable between the goalposts of the French champion Monaco. With Ivan Perišić and others, they really do make a powerful team.
Roads towards the top of football can be varied. Results in youth categories are a bonus, not imperative, which is often forgotten among Serbian coaches. Therefore, they often put emphasis on achieving results, not on developing players. No one claims that Serbia does not need successes from U19 or U21 teams, it just needs those players to keep their fearlessness on the pitch and keep fighting ruthlessly when they reach the senior side. If there is one thing that Serbian fans secretly envy their western neighbours for, it is the fanatism their players show when they put on the Croatian jersey.
And while some new young guns are growing up in South Korea – from Jean-Kevin Augustin and Denis Poha to Ronaldo Peña and Riccardo Orsolini – fans in Serbia are smilingly remembering the times when they were thinking of the New Zealand tournament as a distant dream. Reality struck them when around 100,000 people welcomed young footballers on the streets of Belgrade, to celebrate together that historical achievement.
Now, with a new challenge ahead of the country’s young stars, is the time when Serbian fans are dreaming.