From Glee to Gloom: Story of Serbia’s U21 Team of 2007
Serbia’s last U21 team to play in the final match of the Euro Championship was regarded as one of the most talented generations on the continent, yet achievements were duly missed. Nebojša Marković tells the story of a generation reliving failures, falling into oblivion of the international football.
IT WAS A STRANGE YEAR FOR the national team of Serbia and Montenegro. After great qualifying results, Ilija Petković’s team was preparing for a journey to Germany – the 2006 World Cup. The nation waited for eight long years to book the place they thought they fully deserved, for the first time since France in 1998.
Triumph in the qualifying Group 7 was brilliant. Serbia and Montenegro were undefeated in ten matches, topping the table ahead of Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium. They had conceded only one goal on their way to Germany and fans were expecting to see big results at the greatest stage.
Yet, as it usually happens, human greed and politics interfered. Agents and petty football employees were giving their best to somehow benefit from a team so vigorous and sturdy during the qualifying campaign. The team that lacked support after two miserable qualifiers for World Cup in 2002 and Euro in 2004 now had its full attention. Agents were trying to get around the squad, to coax the players to become their representatives. Playing at World Cup would increase their price, but too much interference meant lack of focus and peace before the tournament started. The atmosphere in the squad changed drastically from October 2005, the final victory against neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina to May 2006, the beginning of preparations for the tournament. The political situation in the country didn’t help the team either.
Deep into the night on 21 May 2006, several hours after the end of the voting, it was clear that two federal units of the country will split up. Citizens of Montenegro voted for their independence on the referendum and on June 3 it would officially became a sovereign country. World Cup was just about to start and one of the teams of group C, which also included Netherlands, Argentina and Ivory Coast, was a country that didn’t exist anymore.
World Cup was just about to start and one of the teams of group C, which also included Netherlands, Argentina and Ivory Coast, was a country that didn’t exist anymore.
Mirko Vučinić, a very talented striker at the time, had to miss the World Cup due to injury and the national coach Ilija Petković decided to call-up his son Dušan to go to Germany. Petković junior, who then played for OFK Beograd, a decent Serbian club which produced many talents throughout the history , got his chance to play at the biggest stage ahead of Marko Pantelić and Veljko Paunović, which made a lot of turmoil in media and amongst the squad. Petković senior explained his decision – ‘I chose someone who can bring experience and a player who can help in maintain a good atmosphere in the squad’1 – but his decision did not have the desired effect.
Dušan refused to go to World Cup amidst such controversy. As the squad list was already been submitted to FIFA, the football governing body didn’t allow a replacement. Serbia and Montenegro was therefore the only country to enter the tournament with 22 players.
After an opening 1-0 loss to Netherlands, in which Arjen Robben scored the only goal, everything fell apart like a heavy desk on crooked legs; it tried to stay strong as long as possible, but once it fell, it made a lot of noise. As per media reports, there were conflicts between strikers Savo Milošević and Mateja Kežman. It wasn’t helpful after the previous situation with Ilija and Dušan Petković and the injury of Nemanja Vidić, (who was a crucial part of the defence, having joined Manchester United in the winter transfer window of 2006) only made matters worse. The team conceded half a dozen goals against Argentina and further three against Ivory Coast, even after leading 2-0 for much of the first half, ending their World Cup dreams. Yet, a little bit earlier, in late May of 2006, at the U21 European Championship, Serbia and Montenegro didn’t go through as much pain as their seniors did few weeks later. The team managed by Dragan Okuka unluckily lost to Ukraine after penalty shoot-outs in the semi-final. Netherlands easily defeated former Soviet Republic afterwards, claiming the title with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as their greatest force.
And then, after all the ‘culprits’ in the senior team and the national FA finished blaming each other through media for disastrous World Cup results, it was time to bring about changes. Aesthetic changes at the least. The national team now represented the country of Serbia, ’Plavi’ (Blues) became ’Orlovi’ (Eagles), named after a two-headed eagle on the national crest. Enthusiasm emerged again, propelled by growing nationalist and patriotic feelings in the country. Serbia wasn’t part of federations anymore, as it was ever since the end of the First World War, through the ‘experiments’ of Yugoslavia and federation of Serbia and Montenegro. The anthem ‘Hej Sloveni’ (Hey Slovenes) was still used until 2006 and Montenegro’s independence, but it felt archaic ever since Josip Broz Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia broke apart in early 1990s and fans would boo it on every possible occasion. The kits of the national team were now red and for the first time a foreign coach – Spaniard Javier Clemente, took charge of the senior team. . Meanwhile, Miroslav Đukić got his opportunity at the helm of the U21 squad.
Đukić, then a 40-year-old coach with great perspective and an even greater playing career – as a central defender for Deportivo de La Coruña, Valencia and Tenerife, featuring in over 400 league matches in the Iberian Peninsula – had a slightly different assignment from his predecessors. UEFA’s decision to switch the U21 Euro Championships to being held in odd years meant shortened qualifiers for the tournament in Netherlands in 2007.
The qualifying group consisting of Georgia and Lithuania wasn’t too much to swallow and Serbia were supposed to play against Sweden in the play-off. A heavy 3-0 home loss in the first leg in Novi Sad was both incomprehensible and surprising. Đukić’s boys were brushed aside and before the return leg in Sweden, labelled as formality; the coach was already deplored and almost ostracized.
But odd soon became odder. As Petković’s ‘nonexistent’ Serbia and Montenegro was astoundingly swept away from the World Cup, Sweden was similarly embarrassed in their own yard. Serbia resurrected with a 5-0 thrashing at their opponent’s home turf barely four days after their own humiliation at home, qualifying for the tournament held in the most densely populated country on the ‘old continent’. During 48 hours, from when his team left Serbia for a second-leg match in the Scandinavian country to the end of it, Đukić crossed the road from being an ignorant fool to becoming a genius with a magic wand. 2006 concluded as a fine year for the U21 national team, but also as one of the most painful years for the senior squad.
In spring of 2007, before the departure to Netherlands, Đukić announced the list of 23 players.
Goalkeepers: Damir Kahriman, Igor Stefanović, Aleksandar Kesić
Defenders: Branislav Ivanović, Antonio Rukavina, Nemanja Rnić, Aleksandar Kolarov, Duško Tošić, Slobodan Rajković, Nikola Petković
Midfielders: Gojko Kačar, Milan Smiljanić, Boško Janković, Dejan Milovanović, Nikola Drinčić, Stefan Babović, Predrag Pavlović, Đjorđje Ivelja, Miloš Krasić, Dušan Basta, Zoran Tošić
Forwards: Đorđe Rakić, Dragan Mrđja
In the first match at the tournament, Serbia defeated Italy 1-0. Dejan Milovanović scored the goal with a beautiful low shot from distance , while England and Czech Republic drew 0-0. Đukić was satisfied how the team played, but was also stubbornly reminding everyone it was only the first match.
Czech Republic succumbed to Serbia deep into the stoppage time when Boško Janković scored the only goal of the match. England and Italy drew in the other match of the round, killing two birds with a single shot – Serbia simultaneously secured first place in the group and their ticket for the Olympic tournament in Beijing the following year.
In the final group match, Leroy Lita scored for England early in the game, before the match filled with tensions on both sides peaked after 77 minutes. It was then that Matt Derbyshire scored a second goal for England, in spite of defender Slobodan Rajković sitting on the edge of the penalty area due to injury. It was Rajković who was ‘credited’ for Derbyshire not being offside, but the English striker didn’t want to stop the play. After the goal was scored, a group of Serbia’s players were outraged by Derbyshire’s lack of fair play, but it didn’t help much.
In the semis, Serbia played their best game of the tournament, defeating Belgium 2-0. Kolarov shined throughout, scoring an early goal from a long range free kick, reminding of his legendary compatriot Siniša Mihajlović. The ticket for the final showdown was sealed after 87 minutes, when Dragan Mrđja scored the second. Serbia were in the final against the hosts.
Miroslav Đukić used a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation during the tournament, often resembling a 4-4-1-1 when defending. In front of goalkeeper Kahriman was a nicely organized defensive line consisting of Rukavina and Kolarov as full-backs and Ivanović and Duško Tošić as centre-backs. Rukavina was more of a reactive right-back, giving space to Kolarov to be more offensive on the left, keeping the balance of the defence intact. Ivanović was by then already hugely experienced – it was his third U21 Euro championship, having featured in 2004 and 2006– and his leadership skills were of a great value.
Milan Smiljanić and Dejan Milovanović were central midfielders, while Dušan Basta was on the right and the till then unknown Zoran Tošić was on the left. Serbia was always better playing through the flanks where pacey wingers tried to offer width to onrushing midfielders, and Milovanović’s goal against Italy came after a similar attack.
Serbia also had Miloš Krasić in the squad, yet he only played in the opening match before getting injured. Boško Janković was operating as an attacking midfielder/second striker, depending of the phase of the game, while Mrđa was the only striker.
In the final match however, Serbia seemed to lack energy. It was completely different display from the one against Belgium and Kolarov’s red card just over an hour into the match made matters worse. However, most of the ‘guilt’ fell on an amazingly vibrant team of Netherlands. They were attacking in waves through, as it turned out, one-time wonder Royston Drenthe and unrestrainable striker Ryan Babel. The Dutch retained the title and Đukić and his boys returned home proud.
Looking back at the squad U21 Serbia had in 2007 from a distance of nine years, two things become obvious. First, Serbia’s result from that Euro championship though a great success, was not entirely surprising; and second, future of the main national team seemed so bright back then.
Nevertheless, after a period of euphoria, produced by appealing displays and mature wins against three powerful teams, it was right time for these young players to showcase their talent and ability in the main national team.
Looking through history, players who performed at U21 Euro Championships had the chance to shine in biggest tournaments in next three to five years. Italy’s team of 2007, defeated by Serbia, in their squad among others had Giorgio Chiellini, Ricardo Montolivo and Antonio Nocerino. The former two started the Euro 2012 final, while the latter of them watched the heavy loss to Spain from the bench. In Netherlands also played Graziano Pelle, who had a great Euro 2016, proving that some players mature later.
Of the 23 players in Serbia’s team of 2007, at least 16 played once in the main national team, while Nikola Drinčić chose to change his nationality and played for Montenegro. He earned 33 caps for the youngest European country in the process. Among the 16 players mentioned, half could be marked as important internationals who played during some periods in the past nine years.
Branislav Ivanović has been capped for Serbia on 87 occasions so far, leaving behind legendary players such as Dragan Džajić and Dragan Stojković. He is now third on the all-time list behind Savo Milošević and Dejan Stanković and his club career is illustrious. At Chelsea, he won all he possibly could becoming one of the team’s leaders since he joined the Blues in 2008.
Last year, Ivanović was named into UEFA’s all-time U21 Euro Championship dream team. Besides him, in the team were Manuel Neuer, Chiellini, Alessandro Nesta, Mats Hummels, Frank Lampard, Mesut Özil, Andrea Pirlo, Xavi Hernandez, Francesco Totti and Raul Gonzalez.
Soon after the 2007 U21 Euro, Kolarov established himself at Lazio, before peaking in the light blue jersey of Manchester City. He played 64 matches for Serbia, ten less than Zoran Tošić, who became one of the pillars at CSKA Moscow, after his short stint at Manchester United.
Development of Boško Janković, Slobodan Rajković and Gojko Kačar was notably slowed down due to numerous serious injuries, while Miloš Krasić was already by 2005 champion of UEFA Cup with CSKA Moscow, before earning a transfer to Juventus in 2010.
In spite of all great players of that generation – along with some older ones, such as Nemanja Vidić, Dejan Stanković and Nikola Žigić, and the late discoveries of Neven Subotić and Zdravko Kuzmanović – Serbia, since then, have qualified for a single international tournament, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
After poor qualifying campaign for the Euro 2008, experienced coach Radomir Antić took over the national team. The only person to ever manage three greatest Spanish clubs – Real and Atletico Madrid and Barcelona – brought winning mentality to the side. At his debut in the post, just around 9000 people were present at the stadium of Crvena zvezda, which was a great evidence of fans turning back on the national team. People were not interested in supporting a team that lost to Kazakhstan 2-1 and drew 0-0 against Finland and Armenia in Euro 2008 qualifiers. National team fell into oblivion as the nation had more socio-economic problems to ponder upon, as the global financial crisis hit an insufficiently developed country like Serbia hard.
Still, the team qualified for their first World Cup in Africa, finishing top of the group, ahead of France and Austria. In the final match of the qualifiers, Serbia defeated Romania 5-0, at the same stadium the campaign had started, but now in front of 55000 enthusiastic spectators. ’Orlovi’ were ready for big results, just as four years earlier.
As then, many outside factors affected the atmosphere around the team. Like in Germany 2006, the players did not have their peace during preparations and bad mood prevailed, after media speculations were mainly focused on the new contract between the FA and Radomir Antić. Former Partizan and Luton Town player was supposed to earn €1.2m per year, an astronomical sum for a country like Serbia. Though Antić’s salary is what only he and his employers should care about, coach’s only mistake was signing the contract before the tournament.
After an opening loss against Ghana, Serbia were brave against Germany, showing their full strength in a 1-0 win against Joachim Löwe’s side. Yet, when it mattered the most, the team underperformed and a shocking 2-1 loss to Australia meant end of the tournament for ‘Orlovi’ when only a draw in the last match would have seen them through.
From 23 players which Antić took to South Africa, seven were members of the U21 squad of 2007. Ivanović, Kolarov, Krasić, Kačar and Zoran Tošić had their roles at the World Cup, while Rukavina and Mrđa didn’t enter the pitch in those three matches.
In the Euro 2012 qualifiers, Serbia was appalling. Antić was sacked after a 3-0 win against Faroe Islands and a 1-1 draw against Slovenia. Due to his four-match-ban, earned in the aftermath of that World Cup loss against Australia, Antić wasn’t allowed to manage the team from the bench and the pressure on him was immense even before the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012 started. Afterwards, ‘Orlovi’ weren’t the same anymore. A single point from two matches against Estonia was unacceptable, even though the team had chances of reaching play-offs before the final match against Slovenia. Serbia unsurprisingly lost 1-0.
In the following cycle, reprezentacija (national team) had a tough group consisting of Belgium, Croatia and Wales, but a loss to Macedonia who finished at the bottom of the group hindered their chances of reaching World Cup in Brazil. In the last qualifying campaign, for Euro 2016, Serbia fell harder than ever before.
After the scandal at the FK Partizan stadium, in a qualifying match against Albania in October 2014, (when an Albanian fan flew a drone above the pitch with a flag attached to it, showing a map of ‘Greater Albania’ – a fictional territory consisting of Albania, parts of Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as of Kosovo, the disputed territory Serbia still officially recognizes as its own) home fans were outraged and some of them ran on to the pitch. After the many previous fines UEFA imposed on Serbian FA, this wasn’t going to be looked at with sympathies. UEFA punished Serbia with a three-point deduction and a 3-0 victory for Albania. Still, the hard fought draw in Armenia once again showed how much the national team had struggled. In the end, finishing fourth, only a couple of points away from getting the wooden spoon, behind Portugal, Albania and Denmark, was intolerable.
But, in spite of having a great generation of young players in 2007, Serbia’s results were surprisingly poor. Success in one international tournament out of five is not a satisfying number for a team consisting of players who have played in the best European leagues. A scarcity of players in the national team is not where Serbia’s problems lie. Countries with far lesser population like the Republic of Ireland, Croatia, Northern Ireland or Iceland seldom miss tournaments. Northern Ireland’s and Iceland’s brave qualifying campaigns in the last two years have won many hearts. Factors which influenced Serbia’s national team to continuously disappoint were numerous – from constant changes of coaches and feeble effort of individual players, to rumours that the best XI weren’t always decided by the coach himself, has contributed to the team’s performance. Vladimir Petrović, Siniša Mihajlović, Dick Advocaat and Radovan Ćurčić – the national team coaches in the period from 2010 to 2016 – probably wouldn’t agree with that ascertainment, but the fact remains that the potential of the national team was never fully exploited. Something was always missing. Displays were sloppy and inept. Excuses for failures evolved from situation to situation, and Serbia would always be the one that would every other year see teams off to the great summer football festivals.
Factors which influenced Serbia’s national team to continuously disappoint were numerous – from constant changes of coaches and feeble effort of individual players, to rumours that the best XI weren’t always decided by the coach himself, has contributed to the team’s performance.
And what can be said about the generation of 2007? Their path set off merrily. Ever since they were giving interviews with broad smiles to intrigued journalists in Netherlands, it was logical to expect something very different from what actually happened afterwards.
The highway of carefree victories turned somewhere half-way towards the destination on to a meandering gravel road of bitter failures. It was as if they lacked belief of achieving heights reached in the U-21 team.
And what about Miroslav Đukić? He did warn everyone it was only the first game.