Serbia’s Coming of Age: Giant-killing in Port Elizabeth

Serbia played its first ever World Cup as an independent nation in 2010 in South Africa. Unflattering and unimpressive, the Serbians were written off before a ball was kicked, only to produce one of the biggest upsets in the tournament.
Serbia's Coming of Age: Giant killing in Port Elizabeth
Art by Onkar.

“Krasic…Krasic is in behind the German defence, he has pulled it back, Zigic arriving…surely a goal for Serbia who score through Jovanovic!”

This was arguably the most important goal in Serbia’s short footballing history. A nation once deeply troubled by sectarianism, border wars and ethnic conflicts now stood tall by recording its first-ever win at a World Cup event as an independent country.

It sounds strange that the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa was Serbia’s debut World Cup considering the country’s rich footballing heritage. Once part of the former Yugoslavia, Serbs, until 2010, took part in international tournaments not as a self-standing nation but as part of a social republic or a union.

From Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1950s to the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in the 2000s, Serbia’s representation at World Cups or European Championships had always been bit part.

The Yugoslavians, once dubbed as ‘the Brazil of Europe’ for their flamboyant, dynamic and fearless brand of attacking football, were subsequently branded as ‘Europe’s most consistent chokers’. Three Olympic Silver medals and two European Championship runners up medals are a testimony to an efficient football culture and a missing tooth in the crunch moments .

However, the consistent showing at world events was good enough advertisement for the talent present in that part of the world. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, et al, now play for some of the biggest clubs in the world including Real Madrid and Manchester United. But the self doubt and rampant corruption that pervaded their footballing institutions coupled with severe social, economic and political issues have always impeded the former Yugoslavians’ chance to flourish.

And for Serbia, a country maligned by Hollywood-influenced negative stereotypes, a chance to express itself has been a tad bit more difficult than the others. Until 2010, that is.

Bon Voyage

Serbia’s qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup featured the mighty Frenchmen, the Austrians, the Romanians, and minnows Lithuania and Faroe Island.

The onus to top the group lay with the French whose star-studded squad was largely expected to see off the likes of Serbia with relative ease. Little did we know that come the end of the qualifying round, the Serbs would finish a point above France, forcing them to contest a play-off.

Five goals from Milan Jovanovic, three apiece from Branislav Ivanovic and Nikola Zigic, and two each from Milos Krasic and Nenad Milijas saw Serbia cruise the qualifiers with seven wins and two losses in 10 games.

Serbia were off to South Africa after topping their group.

Heartbreak in Pretoria

Radomir Antic, the former Partizan Belgrade, Fenerbahce and Luton Town defender, was appointed as Serbia’s national team manager just two weeks prior to the beginning of the qualifying round. With an extremely impressive CV featuring managerial stints with clubs like Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, Antic worked wonders with the team at his disposal.

Antic deployed a more or less traditional 4-4-2 formation that relied on the defensive prowess of Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic at the back, the industry of Dejan Stankovic in the middle, and the genius of the very creative Milos Krasic on the flanks.

Making their World Cup debut, Serbia began the tournament with a clash against Ghana in Pretoria. The Serbian lineup featured the towering 6-foot-8-inch Zigic up top with Krasic and Jovanovic on the wings. But, Ghana were coached by a Serbian himself; a Milovan Rajevac who once played for Red Star Belgrade in the late 1970s. And perhaps this was an indicator that they were not to be tactically underestimated. A lacklustre first half saw Ghana double team Krasic and Jovanovic, cutting off Serbia’s supply lines, while playing in a 3-6-1 formation that used incredible pressing tactics to nullify any Serbian midfield threat.

Antic was forced to resort to long-ball tactics that saw the ball completely bypass Stankovic and Milijas in midfield towards Zigic up top.

Disaster struck in the 85th minute when substitute Zdravko Kuzmanovic who had come on for Milijas in the second half handled the ball inside his own box to gift Ghana a penalty.

Up stepped Asamoah Gyan to crush the Serbian hearts by putting the ball in the back of the net and giving Ghana a 1-0 victory.

Battle of Port Elizabeth

A surprising loss in the opening game meant that Serbia now faced a must win and an uphill battle against the mighty Germans who were one of the favourites to win the tournament.
Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose had inspired Germany to a 4-0 thrashing of Australia in Durban five days before and were expected to achieve a similar feat against Serbia.

For Antic, a new tactical approach was imperative. With the German starting XI featuring the likes of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger among others, Serbia had to produce the game of their lives to stand any chance of winning the match.

So, the 4-3-3 replaced the 4-4-2. A young Neven Subotic replaced Aleksandar Lukovic at the back and the midfield three consisted of Stankovic, Kuzmanovic and Milos Ninkovic. A flat 4-3-3, this formation allowed the Serbians to adapt a more defensive-oriented 4-5-1 when the Germans had the ball.

Twelve minutes into the game, Miroslav Klose clipped Branislav Ivanovic with a cynical tackle that saw his first yellow card of the game. Referee Alberto Mallenco had brandished 11 red cards in 17 games in the La Liga in the 2009-10 season. This stat alone should have been enough warning against silly fouls.

But no.

Ten minutes before the half-time interval, Klose wrapped his foot around the legs of Stankovic in a desperate attempt to win the ball and but received his second yellow card instead. Germany, down to ten men, had dug their own graves.

The gravity of that situation was further exacerbated two minutes later when a brilliantly orchestrated move freed up Milos Krasic on the right flank. Serbia had largely relied on hitting the Germans on the break but lacked impetus. However, a sequence of aesthetically pleasing moves saw Krasic end up with the ball at his feet and the then CSKA Moscow man whipped in a cross towards target man Nikola Zigic.

Showing his aerial prowess, Zigic expertly put the ball down by jumping over Per Mertesacker. And former Liverpool attacker Jovanovic, completely unmarked inside the box, made no mistake to put the ball in the back of the net from three feet out.

Despite being a man down, Germany threatened the Serbian goal with a few half chances.

Opportunity to equalise came at the hour’s mark when Nemanja Vidic handled the ball inside the box to grant Germany a penalty.

Lukas Podolski stepped up to spare the blushes but missed in the most un-German like fashion, goalkeeper Vladimir Stoijkovic diving low to his left to deny an equaliser.

The save provided a much-needed injection of confidence for the Serbians who played out the rest of the game with an extremely organised defence.

Serbia’s win meant that qualification from Group D to the first knockout round was now wide open. But a 2-1 defeat against Australia in Nelspruit crushed the Serbian dream of progressing and thus ended their run in the tournament.

Despite the disappointment, most Serbians would look back at the 2010 World Cup as a very important juncture in their country’s footballing legacy.

Towards Moscow

With a healthy mixture of experienced and new, the Serbian squad travelling to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is arguably better than the one that made history in South Africa.

Twenty goals in ten qualifying games, including three against Ireland and five against Austria, proves that the team does not lack attacking impetus.

With players like Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic, the highly coveted and supremely talented Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio and Southampton’s tricky attacker Dusan Tadic in the side, Serbia are more than capable of causing an upset or two.

But unfortunately for them, they have been grouped with Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. To expect anything but an exit from the group stage would be unwise given how strong the Brazilians are or how good the Swiss squad is.

They were impressive in their opener against Costa Rica in Samara. A glorious free-kick from skipper Aleksandar Kolarov in the 56th minute was enough for the Serbians to snatch all three points. It was the first time that Serbia had won a World Cup opener. The last time they achieved that feat was as part of Yugoslavia against Iran at the 1998 World Cup in France; coincidentally, that win also came courtesy of a free-kick. Sinisa Mihajlovic’s clever left-footed curler went around the Iranian wall and into the back of the net to give the Yugoslavians a decisive 1-0 victory.

Serbian football had longed for a world class attacking talent since the turn of the millenium. The late nineties saw the emergence of Darko Kovacevic and Savo Milosevic who both went on to have respectable careers in European football but never quite reached the dizzying heights that was expected of them.

Players like Zoran Tosic, Lazar Markovic and Adem Ljajic were all tipped to establish themselves as world class performers at the biggest of clubs but there was always something lacking.

In Milinkovic-Savic, however, Serbia have a player of divine elegance and unflinching resolve. Blessed with the ability to find gaps in the tightest of defences, Milinkovic-Savic is arguably the best midfielder of his age in Europe at the moment which was evident from his man of the match performance against Costa Rica.

Serbia have nothing to prove at this World Cup. But if manager Mladen Krstajic finds a way to fully harness the 23-year-old’s exceptional talent then Serbia are more than capable of causing an upset or two.

Samiran Mishra

Writer, blogger, procrastinator. Fan of football, history and art. Spends most of his time buried inside a book or listening to music.