The Serbs are another descendant of the great Yugoslavian football team. Football nerds worldwide will remember the last great Yugoslavian side of the early 1990’s which could really have gone on to be a major force in world football had the country not been broken up. That generation had won the 1989 U-20 World Cup in Chile, even while missing some key players. In 1990, they made the World Cup quarter-finals and only got eliminated by Argentina on penalties after a pulsating match.
But in 1992, just as they were maturing, they were banned from competing in the 1992 European Championships in Sweden. They were replaced in that tournament by the team they had eliminated in the qualifiers—Denmark. The Danes went on to win the tournament.
That generation of players contained some of the brightest talents of Europe. I once tallied the names of all the players who were eligible to play for a potential Yugoslavia in the mid-1990’s, and came up with these names:
One could write an entire book about these players, but I’ll only briefly mention a few of the great names: Predrag Mijatovic, Davor Suker, Alen Boksic, Dragan Stojkovitch, Robert Prosinecki, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and Zvonimir Boban were all some of the best superstars in Europe around the mid-late-1990’s.
Internationally, they were spread out over several national teams as the country disintegrated. In 1998 these teams separately achieved well in the World Cup finals. Croatia won third-place after beating Holland, Germany, Romania, Japan and Jamaica. Yugoslavia made the second round where they barely lost to the Dutch, who were possibly the best side in that tournament. Slovenia had also qualified, though they were eliminated in the first round. Had these teams been one, they could have won it. The 1998 Yugoslavia team is the greatest team to have never existed.
This is not such a surprise when one considers the international sports pedigree of the countries of the former Yugolsavia. They constantly do well in basketball, volleyball, handball, and several other sports. It is quite remarkable to think of how successful these countries are, particularly given how small their populations are.
And today’s Serbia have every bit of potential to live up to their predecessors’ feat. They finished ahead of France, Romania and Austria in their qualifying group. This is a good side with plenty of quality players through and through—particularly in defense. Chelsea’s Ivanovic and Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic are two of the best defenders in the Premier League. Left-back Kolarov is an exciting player with Italy’s Lazio, Dejan Stankovic plays for European champions Internazionale, Milan Jovanovic has excelled in the Belgian league and is moving to Liverpool. And Nicola Zigic, while not the most prolific striker, plays for Valencia and is an imposing physical presence upfront at 6’8”.
They are coached by Radomir Antic, who is a respected manager that has won the Spanish Liga title with Atletico Madrid in 1996—a formidable accomplishment, considering how rare it is for Atletico Madrid to manage to win the league.
They might not have a great attack on paper, but with good organization and a good gameplan, they can control games and manage to score through set-pieces, relying on the excellent execution of Stankovic and the height of Zigic. One worry for them will be Nemanja Vidic’s tendency to falter under pressure when confronted with good strikers. As a Liverpool striker, I cannot help but recall with immense joy all the wonderful times Fernando Torres has demolished Nemanja Vidic.