Serbian football crawling back from wreckage

When Radomir Antic accepted, at the umpteenth time of asking, the job of Serbian national coach, many pundits assumed it was an act of sheer desperation. His predecessor Miroslav Dukic had been ousted without managing a full competitive game after arguing with Serbian FA boss Tomislav Karadzic. But Antic decided, as he suggested in one remarkably frank interview, “football mirrors the social situation in a country.”

With fewer football executives in jail and a new government engaging with the West, rather than nursing paranoid suspicions about it, the time seemed right. And with Serbia top of their 2010 World Cup qualifying group, Antic’s faith has, so far, been vindicated.

Serbia celebrate at Croke Park

One of the smaller consequences of the break-up of Yugoslavia was that it wrecked Serbian football.

UN sanctions barred the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav team from Euro 92, USA 94 and Euro 96. The gloom was deepened when newly independent Croatia reached the semi-finals of France 98, while a very Serbian Yugoslav team were knocked out in the last 16 by a long distance screamer from Edgar Davids.

In 2006, Serbia, briefly hyphenated with Montenegro, were famously routed 6-0 by Argentina in the 2006 World Cup, conceding to a 24-pass move which showed the kind of technique, patience and guile Serbian football had once been renowned for.But things are finally looking up for the Serbian game. This has been a good transfer window for Serbian players and clubs. Partizan Belgrade have – to use a technical term much in use among the financial cognoscenti – ‘trousered’ £8m from the sale of promising midfielder Zoran Tosic to Manchester United.

Partizan will earn more when his team-mate, attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic, joins United in 2010. After a three-day-trial, Eintracht Frankfurt gave left-back Nikola Petkovic, a star of the Serbian side that reached the 2007 European Under-21 final, a three and a half year contract.The catalyst for this export drive was Nemanja Vidic’s arrival at Old Trafford in 2006. The reported fee – around £6m – now seems like one of the bargains of the 21st century. In football, nothing succeeds like success and the ease with which the redoubtable central defender settled had scouts wondering if they could find similar talent, at the right price, in Vidic’s homeland.

United's new recruit: Zoran 'the new Kaka' Tosic

Last year alone Chelsea paid £9m for defender Branislav Ivanovic, Hertha Berlin snapped up versatile defender/defensive midfielder Gojko Kacar for £2.5m (not bad for a player who became the first Serb to score five goals in a game for his country, against Hungary last September), Borussia Dortmund paid £2m for right-back Antonio Rukavina, Nantes bought striker Filip Djordevic and Genoa took attacking midfielder Bosko Jankovic on loan.

There is still more talent coming through. Red Star’s 25-year-old skipper Nenad Milijas, yet another promising defensive midfielder, has already been linked with CSKA Moscow, Borussia Dortmund, Hertha Berlin and Roma.

20-year-old left-back Ivan Obradovic only made his first team debut for Partizan in April 2007 but he has already been given the captain’s armband and scored his first goal for the national team. Partizan and Red Star are also rumoured to be tracking two U21 stars: midfielder Dusan Tadic and striker Danijel Aleksic.If this money enriches Serbian football, rather than a few directors, the boom may continue. At the very least, such sales might prevent the kind of financial problems which turned the climax of the 2007/08 season into a byzantine, bureaucratic mess.

FK Zemun couldnh’t compete in the UEFA Cup because their finances were so dire. Their place was given to Borac Cacak whose Intertoto Cup spot was given, after four teams turned it down, to OFK Beograd. The relegation battle wasn’t any prettier. Mladost Lucani were relegated because they were broke. This meant one bottom-three side had to be reprieved. Eventually, 11th placed Banat Zrenjanin were saved because they had more supporters than 10th-placed Smederevo, who were so livid they appealed, to no effect, to UEFA. Hopefully, this season such issues will be decided on the pitch. Serbian fans could yet hold their national game back. Partizan were expelled from the 2007/08 UEFA Cup after fighting. Partizan supporters may be nicknamed the gravediggers but there’s no need for them to dig their own club’s grave.

Partizan fans threatening to hold club back

Racist fans still disfigure the Serbian game – though the authorities are probably working harder to combat this than they are sometimes given credit for. Last November, 26 Borac Cacak supporters were jailed after wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits and shouting abuse at their own Zimbabwean player.

Serbians have always played football with a swagger that the rest of the world can find offputting. One of Antic’s tasks, as national coach, is to use that arrogance to his team’s advantage. But his biggest challenge, he admits, is to end the culture of “the typical ‘yes, but’ excuses in the Serbian game.” Ironically, the very process many Serbs laboured to prevent – the complete break up of Yugoslavia – may, ultimately, liberate the nation’s footballers. If Antic can end the “yes, but” culture, 2010 could be Serbia’s best World Cup ever. Not that that’s saying much.

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