The cornerstone – if not by talent then surely politically – of Yugoslav eminence, ancient, ever-evolving Belgrade and its sprawling outposts’ competitive relapse from Communist rule has long cast a shadow over Serbian culture. While Croatia have assumed the pedestal of pacesetters in the post-Soviet Eastern European bloc, semi-Alpine Slovenia and chiefly formerly war-torn Bosnia & Herzegovina have long since featured in their independent guises at the World Cup and minute, independence-delayed Montenegro’s contingent of undoubtedly talented individuals lag only slightly further behind on such fronts, their dominance in the Tito era has elapsed at an alarming rate.
They are, to their credit, consistent qualifiers. Again, this summer, they return to dispatch national delegates to the globe’s most prestigious tournament; harbouring unprecedented ambitions, I would also wager. Yet theirs has not been a recent history without its veritable perils – not until their final qualifying match, as the unlikely figure of Swiss-born striker Aleksandar Prijović slid in for a 74th minute far-post winner against Georgia, could they truly breathe freely.
Such is the expectation on the state’s footballers that at times it can become too heavy a burden to bear. Fraught with accusations of ill-performance, Nemanja Vidić cut short his service at the age of 30, while under previous manager Siniša Mihajlović’s tenure, Nemanja Matić temporarily excused himself from the squad in 2012 due to the perpetual Serie A helmsman’s impassionate selection policy and Adem Ljajić was not considered for selection after refusing to sing the national anthem in a religious stand. Meanwhile, Bosnian-born Neven Subotić – repeatedly reasoned as due to coincidentally recurrent injuries – has been ostracised from the Orlovi’s (Eagles) frame for five years and stalled on 36 caps since his efforts in a futile qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, only months after becoming only the third fully independent Serb to appear in the Champions League final, following Dejan Stanković and Vidić. As evident, politics play an instrumental role in the ongoing struggles of a fractured region.
The nation’s cause has also undoubtedly fell victim to the risk associated with the reliance on continental markets imposed by economic imposition; grand hopes once pinned on Miloš Krasić, Gojko Kačar and Zdravko Kuzmanović, though particularly at the stage of their respective employment at Juventus, Hamburg and Inter Milan burning brightly, ultimately fizzled out, leaving an impoverished, but more noticeably inconsistent, Orlovi midfield in their wake. Their fall from favour at club level, mirrored to this very day by the form of perennial loanees Lazar Marković and Filip Đuričić, the freefalling Miralem Sulejmani and perhaps even long-term servant, but gradually declining creative force, Zoran Tošić that surely places each out of contention for a World Cup squad number, is an unfortunate but inevitable factor of Serbian football until internal markets are indeed bolstered.
Red Star (Crvena Zvezda) and Partizan rule the Balkan, make no mistake. Yet even in an era when the potential profitability of investment in a lesser outfit is seemingly palpable, and investment in academies surely the route forwards, the endless Beograd-based governance that pervades the sport upholds the proficiency of the Eternal Derby rivals’ shared approach. Last summer’s dual transfer of Red Star’s teenage Ilić brothers – 18-year-old Luka and Ivan, 22 months his junior – to Manchester City alone demonstrates the authority they have reinforced throughout three relatively uninterrupted decades of all-conquering accomplishment, with international trade routes gained and reputations asserted.
For so long the ideological opponent to the capital’s twins, Vojvodina – espousing the mountainous northern Autonomous Province’s ethnically diverse and age-old patriotism, and with it over 25% of Serbia’s demographic mass as their support – have this season been removed from their third-place mantle. In their place, the divisive Čukarički entity – based out of another of Belgrade’s suburbs, but posing a vastly different ilk of challenge to the establishment in their status as the nation’s first purely privately-owned club – have assumed responsibility as direct Red Star-Partizan foil. Construction and wholesale magnate Dragan Obradović arrived at the close of the 2011-12 season, and while leading the club from the second division to continental qualification positions has rarely faltered in his promises to redress the balance of local sport. Čuka, appropriately nestled away on the underside of the city’s main trainline and divided by only a matter of miles across their modest, leafy surroundings to the imposing Partizan Stadium, and particularly cultish Marakana, in traditionally visceral and brutalist Belgrade, have applied a decidedly orthodox perspective in their rise to prominence. If an academy alumnus listing Aleksandar Kolarov and Miloš Ninković amongst its ranks was not sufficiently commendable for a side of such inferior infrastructure, then the investment that Obradović, under company ADOC, has provided – doubling the Čukarički Stadium’s capacity in the first season of his regime, providing vastly improved all-weather training facilities in direct proximity to the now-8,000-capacity ground and revamping the playing squad and staff to match his enterprising standards – has elevated the club to new heights. Three consecutive Europa League qualifications have followed their entrance to the SuperLiga, as have three consecutive exits at the second qualifying round. If they are to progress decisively, both domestically and continentally, they must surely rise to realistic competition with their near-neighbours.
The status of all pretenders to either Red Star or Partizan’s throne remains overwhelmingly tied to the adage of ‘best of the rest’ – held at a comfortable arm’s length by the establishment while they toil electing a lead amongst one another. Within this regularly ailing fleet, Radnički Niš represent the industrial semi-modernity of Serbia’s vastly historic third largest city and urban Belgrade’s Voždovac – playing at the ‘Stadion Shopping Centre’, an artificial surface laid over the top of district’s retail hub in a commendable niche – present the only significant consistency in the instability of gradually evolving Balkan economic circumstances. Until this particular situation resolves, potentially incited through the eventual inclusion of such nations into the European Union kin, it is unlikely that the Fudbalski savez Srbije (Football Association of Serbia, or FSS) will address their undermining competitive destitution directly. They certainly recognise the cult appeal of their Belgrade titans and evidently feel little need to tamper with the formality of their title achievement – the outfits do demonstrate conformity to Financial Fair Play with their sustainable business models and continue to promote matchday atmospheres that rank among the best, certainly when pitted against one other, in European and world football. They act by the book and encapsulate many cultural values professed by the Serb majority, so why hinder their continued success by redressing balances in a politically volatile move?
It may not be of great concern that these established orders rule the roost, nor that many promoted from the second division are soon again banished back. Ultimately, their domestic subservience to Western Europe must be halted, directly embroiling UEFA in such a scandal that does not merely align with socio-economic factors; it knowingly exploits the lesser outfits, from its falsely paternalistic guise to its failure to impose the extremities of any apparent FFP policy in elite divisions.
The nation’s pitfalls are somewhat redressed by the cultural factors adorning such historic environs. Multiculturalism, inherent of acting as the crossroads of all iterations of Yugoslav authority for almost a century, has often aided their cause and their reliance on international markets has enabled administrators gradually to recognise adaptability as an instrumental attribute to all of those effectively forced out of Red Star and Partizan by sheer prodigiousness.
Yet the rhetoric of a decade ago still remains. Their diaspora, while so encouragingly vast, renders continuity scarce when regarding the differing physical, let alone technical, demands of players in Serie A in contrast to the SuperLiga or the PL, or even in La Liga and the foremost Scandinavian divisions. Under the cut-and-thrust of the Premier League, for example, Luka Milivojević has performed as if preconditioned to the division while trusted with set-piece duties at Crystal Palace, making an assured return to the international fold, while Matić has yet again proved his class in different surroundings. Yet one would have to argue the diminutive Dušan Tadić has flattered to deceive in his time on the Solent, albeit in a Southampton squad highly restrictive on offensive flair under both Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino, and suggest Marko Grujic may suffer the same fate if failing to significantly impress Jürgen Klopp with recent development. In keeping with national tradition, many of the Orlovi’s prized assets today remain those acquitting themselves admirably in Italy’s loftiest reaches – Sergej Malinković-Savić, alongside occasional Lazio teammate Dušan Basta and Torino’s Adem Ljajić, revelling in their responsibilities on both stages. In their last squad alone, ten nations – as diverse as Israel, Greece and Belgium – and eleven divisions external to the SuperLiga featured. Earlier in the domestic season, they had profited from the continental exploits of Belarus’ BATE Borisov and Denmark’s FC København, yet the abandonment of such ambitions has itself been conspicuous in national selection.
Historically, this dishevelled squad culture has rarely benefited those abridged with it, yet few, at least on the international stage, have perfected the art with greater dexterity than the Balkans, and Croatia as a prime example. In 1998 the Croat squad was littered with employees of some of Europe’s club kingpins, but when harnessing the unrestrained grief and grand relief of an arduous and bloody independence campaign, self-belief, pride and unrivalled determination drove the squad through adversity and almost to semi-final victory over hosts France. Whether the Serbs are ever capable of demonstrating such qualities is itself a fascinating subject, as the dissolution of a chiefdom centred in Belgrade and heavily favouring corrupt city officials is one act from which they appear to have stalled as a state. The bloodshed at the hands of Serb military dictators is alone sufficient of an edict for the international community to be repulsed, yet these men, at least until recently, remained unimpeded, if not kindly favoured, in political culture.
The very status of this World Cup as only the second of a fully isolated Serbia alone elevates their appearance to that of a highly momentous occasion. The political implications surrounding 2006’s qualification – under the moniker Serbia and Montenegro, but in doing so effectively representing a state that had dissolved a week prior after Montenegro’s population opted to vote as a 55.5% majority for independence – were rife. Only one Montenegrin player entered the tournament as a representative, and as the starting goalkeeper in question Dragoslav Jevrić, while also qualifying as a Serb, only a month later retired from international football following his benching in the team’s first official match, events accelerated at an untraceable pace.
One cannot tread water in such political conundrums without making reference to ongoing Kosovan recoils. Though vehemently opposed by the Serbs, for whom over one ninth of disputed land mass would cease to be under their jurisdiction if independence was assured, only exacerbating nigh-on three decades of gradual patriotic dispersion, wider geopolitics appear to favour a peaceful resolution and Kosovo’s fully legislated autonomy. In time, we may begin to recognise a pivotal post-2008 declaration of independence act of cultural autonomy as evident in both FIFA and UEFA’s willingness to admit the Football Superleague of Kosovo into their official competition list and more immediately co-operate with the formal establishment of the Dardanët’s (Dardanians) international squad – albeit eventual, some long drawn-out eight years since the independence proclamation, which even today only roughly half of the world’s nations ratify –especially in view of the ever-mounting ambitions of a Kosovan roster professing both youth and unashamed invention. So much so, indeed, is their ambition that coach Albert Bunjaki, once rewarded for his ideological persistence – having been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment when refusing to join the 1991 Yugoslav armed government crackdowns as a 20-year-old FC Prishtina player, but returning from sixteen years of playing and management in Swedish exile to take the newly vacant position in Priština, the city of his birth – as a patient helmsman during an era of highly intermittent action from 2009 and the first to lead them into a qualification campaign, was swiftly deposed after procuring just a single point from ten matches in a highly competitive pre-2018 group. In his place, 66-year-old Swiss elder statesman Bernard Challandes, who balances his time with preoccupation as FC Basel first-team talent scout, has been installed to cultivate a new form of stability; sensing that Bunjaki, though mastering his art of the sport in the highly-respected Swedish coaching programmes, had reached the expiration of his philosophical use. For such a formative side, recruiting a former Swiss national under-17, U18 and U21 and Zürich manager, albeit one who has blotted his copybook while touring a who’s who of the Swiss Super League in the past decade with little length or success, surely serves as a major administrative coup.
At least in contrast with Serb policy, anyway. In light of the assurance of 2018 qualification, the much-travelled 64-year-old Slavoljub Muslin was deposed rather than credited, with hierarchical unrest at his defensive outlook – despite a back catalogue listing ‘two-time Red Star boss’, ‘perennial continental competitor’ and ‘Russian-speaking’ amongst its credits – forcing him out, and as opposed to a philosophically abrupt, Bert van Marwijk-to-Australia-style appointment, assistant manager and former international Mladen Krstajić taking the immeasurably pressurised reins. Without prior managing experience, the 44-year-old five-time SuperLiga victor with Partizan, as well as a Bundesliga-DFB Pokal double champion with Werder Bremen while reinforcing his position amongst a Serb-Montenegrin ‘Famous Four’ backline in the mid-2000s, is tasked with the handling of an entire new era of Serbian football.
At the very least surely culminating glovesman Vladimir Stojković’s international career in the third World Cup of an as-yet 79-time-capped tenure, with Branislav Ivanović and Kolarov drawing to eventual closures and Matić, if opting to pursue his Orlovi ambitions, being promoted to the captaincy for a potent sight of their first European Championships qualification since Euro 2000’s Serb-Montenegrin iteration, this summer represents the requirement for rebirth. The achievements of the 2015 Under-20 World Cup winning squad must be translated into coherent and heartening performances in a senior tournament situation, and the sport’s most prestigious stage at that – Malinković-Savić, prolific winger Andrija Živković and midfield catalyst Nemanja Maksimović, elevated to near-elite environs at Lazio, Benfica and Valencia the most evident exponents of this legacy, while Maccabi Tel Aviv goalkeeper Predrag Rajković will pin hopes on emerging through the Stojković-embossed glass ceiling and Tottenham-turned-Werder Bremen centre back Miloš Veljković wishes to consolidate admirable club form with senior international selection.
These are, however, incomplete entities misplaced in the midst of an immobilising national identity crisis. While giving due diligence and respect to their elders, these heroes – having defeated a Brazil side featuring Gabriel Jesus, Malcom and Andreas Pereira in New Zealand – must recognise how their competitive results must irreversibly alter from such forefathers, equally dependent on each individual’s mental fortitude as physical dexterity, and first evident this summer.
Culturally, this promises to be an iconic summit. As far as they would perhaps prefer to refute, the similarities between the Serbs and their Russian hosts are irrevocable. As one centre of a multi-nation union attempted to doggedly persist with Communism and central power, as did the other; their ancient histories, in many cultural realms, also undoubtedly align. If even required, the tournament thus assumes even greater national poignance. The modern ties are also countless and promise a relatively harmonious atmosphere between the two sets of fans – one of the few pairs of cultural, and perhaps even political, kindred spirits evident at the event, regardless of host city – in a momentous few weeks for either nation.
Returning to the site of dissolution mourners, albeit a society that has profited immensely under Vladimir Putin’s all-observant and shapeshifting premiership and has successfully shirked most post-Soviet malaise, may prove instrumental in long-overdue Serb healing. The sheer sight of their pragmatic, but often uncomfortable bedfellows’ land may raise some unwelcome questions of the advancement of society since the days of fierce Tito obstinance, but Russia – specifically the Volga-bound Samara, geopolitically ambiguous Kaliningrad and capital Moscow – also acts as a platform on which to display liberties since gained, and those which are now helping to forge some semblance of an emergent youth culture independent from the despondence of old. Many of those packing for such excursions – players and fans alike – will indeed have only been mere children in the midst of post-Yugoslav conflict’s clutches and encountered Montenegrin and Kosovan independence during raw history lessons in school. Theirs will be the tales poured out this summer, but equally it is their responsibility to restrain their emotion from encroaching on professional performances against – at the very least – group stage opponents Costa Rica, Switzerland and Brazil.
Comparatively – even in the ever-tumultuous Brazilian administration’s case – politically placid, these three diverse states present a stern task of absolute tactical stringency, omnipotent flair and competitive nous, and would require the mounting of great nerve and managerial cohesion to overcome.
In their midst, one would imagine Serbia’s chief reliance to be placed on a triumvirate of Malinković-Savić, Matić and Aleksandar Mitrović – their three most relevant names at present, even if the former has just two prior caps to his name. The sheer physical brutishness, aerial proficiency and close-range opportunism of the latter will force a direct approach in the final third, certainly, but midfield is undoubtedly the key asset of the squad. In Živković – though referred to as the ‘Serbian Messi’, more reminiscent for me of Xherdan Shaqiri, defying a lesser stature with perhaps even greater raw pace – they possess a multifaceted supply line, while Filip Kostić provides a diligent and occasionally explosive (though recently out-of-form, in a relegation-battling Hamburg side) outlet on either flank. The inevitable question, considering the critical lack of striking depth behind the still 23-year-old Mitrović, remains of how to compose the correct balance of midfield qualities in a starting XI worthy of challenging surely Central and South America’s pre-eminent sides and one of Europe’s outstanding success stories. Especially poignant given the popularity of the 4-3-3 and three-man defensive line-up amongst favourites for the prize, their preoccupation with the 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1, though potentially segueing into a 4-3-3 (and trained in an ill-disciplined 3-4-3 under Muslin) when such requirements arise, rely heavily on rigidity, characterised by lynchpins Matić and Milivojević, as opposed to the flexibility opponents such as indeed Brazil will aim to pose. Tite’s side, after all, are perhaps the closest of any – bar perhaps Germany or at a stretch Spain – to being near-faultlessly equipped to enact their tactical plans; perhaps an experienced striker and serious squad depth away, while Joachim Löw’s ever-pensive outfit may lack full-back and, as ever, striking nous and Julen Lopetegui looks to combat ageing or misfiring forward options and a lack of midfield tenacity. Serbia’s rife issues render these concerns mere petty squabbles, not the tactical ponderings that will crown the victors of an era.
The FSS hierarchy’s role in recent turbulence is not one to be discounted, nonetheless. In place since the nation’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016, President Slaviša Kokeza has shed few of the unfavourable characteristics associated with the role from the tenures of predecessors Zvezdan Terzić and Tomislav Karadžić. Club bias, vast legal violation and general contempt for all parishioners of the administration have each defined leadership from Terzić’s arrest and abdication in 2008 after being found guilty of embezzlement while retaining conspicuous ties with former club OFK Beograd to Karadžić’s criminal record listing a major assault in 1961 for which he only served six months imprisonment and unashamed Partizan loyalties, and now amidst disputes over Kokeza’s handling of the Muslin sacking so close to the World Cup. He, representative of the establishment’s history, is also extremely wary of Red Star privatisation in the footsteps of near neighbours Čukarički, and as such is embroiled in an unfortunate war of words – though a fine custom in the region – with Terzić, who after handing himself into authorities in 2010 and a year later paying his €1 million bail fee, now as Crvena Zvezda general threatens such manipulation with the same self-governing streak that has marked him as a villain to many.
The implications of any perceived split could be rife; Red Star could prevent players from international selection, and thus their chances of securing an overseas venture. The legality of this would be highly tenuous, and far more extensive that the Bosman ruling of yesteryear, yet while the Orlovi feature no SuperLiga-leading Zvezda players during this current impasse (defender Vujadin Savić succumbing to injury before what may have been a debut in March, however), it seems if a new direction is to be taken in the Serbian footballing landscape, great compromise is required. It is not achieved without trust, however, and at present this is in desperately short supply. Inevitably politics will disrupt cohesive administration, but it does not require perpetual conflict to progress – the forthcoming generation of Serbs knowing this all too well, you’d imagine.
Absolutely evident from such cases, Kokeza’s is not a task to be completed with any ease or cringe-inducing English PR attempts – he, if truly willing to sacrifice pride for his nation’s triumph, must be prepared to take criticism on the nose if competitive fates are to improve. What he must aid is the disruption of cultural complacency.
The once locally hegemonic mentality, which later became a centre of aspiration, of the state lay in tatters and sheer footballing passion bereft of reward through a shared disconsolation. On domestic, continental, international and administrative fronts, the nation has become inferior at least to Croatia, and in some specific credentials to lesser post-Yugoslav republics to their own great embarrassment. To banish this grand self-pity, the national psyche must be reinstated, thus stemming directly through the Orlovi’s senior performances, not least on the World Cup stage.
If not achieving this summer, then the opportunity next presents itself, poetically, rather soon; they will surely have to emerge from their formative Nations League group– consisting entirely of post-Communist allies in Lithuania, Romania and comrades Montenegro, though seeded below the Tricolorii – in order to regain serious international credentials. Regardless of events in Russia, it will prove an era-defining competition, and the beginning of a potential dynasty. They certainly possess the requisite attributes – whether they can each be harnessed cohesively depends entirely on a tendency for self-evaluation, as opposed to blind narcissism. To salvage a true hotbed of the sport, they do not have to redraw the handguide. Accepting compromise, however, is fundamental, and adapting to an ever-changing age inevitable. Support, as ever, has held the key to this realisation – trust the nation’s youth, those of a liberated age, to forge an independent history. In many respects, this summer’s tournament may be the end of an era, and the catalyst to start anew. It could, alternatively, prove the first step of this fresh future. Whichever destiny arises, it is in fair Serbia’s hands. Daunting as it may seem, rarely has this proclamation had quite the same tone.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!