Serbia’s national team – the “Eagles”; as the press likes to call it - will be making their way to the 2010 FIFA World Cup quietly, making no high flown statements which would fuel the usual euphoria or the high expectations of the country with a population of around seven and a half million people, and almost as many team selectors.
Basketball, water polo, volleyball and tennis players have made Serbians used to their successes, and similar accomplishments have for a long time been expected of football players, too. However, they have rarely managed to meet the expectations of their supporters.
The previous World Cup was a disappointment to Serbia seeing as the team of Serbia and Montenegro lost all its three matches. Out of these three, the one that hurt the most was the fiasco against Argentina ending in a 0-6 result.
This time, there are hopes of better achievements. "This is a new game, we have a new team and I am sure the results will be different," said Nikola Žikić, striker for Birmingham City. The club paid around EUR 7 million for his transfer there from Valencia.
In the past, the national team of former Yugoslavia was nine times among the best in the world. On two occasions, in 1930 and 1962, it even played in the semi-finals. These were the best results the Yugoslavian national team ever scored.
Since then, the circumstances have changed drastically. The countries of the region are much smaller now, the competition around the world is much tougher, and only the greatest optimists dare even contemplate reaching the semi-finals. Žigić is one of these people.
"Those who do not believe that we can win the world cup finals should not bother going to South Africa," Žigić pointed out. Standing at a towering 2.02 metres, he is one of the tallest players in the World Cup.
No one will give up the role of a possible outsider right away, even though everyone is aware that the Serbian team has its work cut out, having been selected a member of Group D, which comprises of three-time world cup winner Germany, the African football power of Ghana and the unrelenting Australians.
"We will have to be Spartans if we want to achieve success in South Africa. We cannot afford to be nice," Milan Jovanović pointed out. In the world cup qualifications, he scored five goals which made him the best scorer in his team.
Before the qualifications took place, the pessimists believed that the “Eagles” would not have a chance of making it till the World Cup. Yet, the team ranked first in their group, which also included the current vice-champion France, together with Austria and Romania, participants in the previous European Championship. Yet the Serbian offensive was the most efficient, totalling 22 goals, including five goals in the victory over the Romanian team.
Jovanović and his room-mate Miloš Krasić performed strongly in that match. This is why Jovanović will be donning the colours of Liverpool next season and why half of Europe is after Krasić. Žigić confirmed the opinion of many that he remained undeservedly on the bench in Valencia. Marko Pantelić also attracted a great deal of attention and will probably be sought after by many football clubs.
Centerfield was mainly controlled by the team captain Dejan Stanković who, after the qualifications were over, kept the same energy and continued the season playing for Inter, helping it become the European Champion and the winner of the Italian Championship trophy for the fifth time in a row. "I am not tired and I do not want to rest," said the leader of the Serbian team.
The defence was also on top of their game, led by Nemanja Vidić, one of the best defenders in the world, and player for Manchester United. Yet another Serbian favourite was Branislav Ivanović, who had become an important component in the machinery of Chelsea, the Champions of England. Daring penetration and strong kicks from Aleksandar Kolarov intrigued even the famous Real Madrid. World media say that Real intends to reinforce its team in the coming season by including this full-back of Serbia’s national team.
Overall, national team selector Radomir Antić has managed to create a homogeneous team. The experience and authority which he has gained as the only coach who has led the three famous football clubs of Spain, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, has proved effective with the Serbian team too. The whole country is now able to hope that the “Eagles” achieve great results in South Africa.
The main goal has, nevertheless, remained modest: winning in Group D where many favour Germany or Ghana. The general view is that much will depend on the first match that Serbia will play against Ghana in Pretoria on June 13.
"We are not even considering the possibility of failure," midfielder Zdravko Kuzmanović pointed out. He served as the captain of the Swiss U-21 national team, but as a senior he decided to play for Serbia.
Five days after the match with Ghana, the “Eagles” will play against Germany at Port Elizabeth, and then they continue on June 23 against Australia at Nelspruit.
"I cannot promise that we shall win the World Cup and bring the Goddess (the trophy) with us to Belgrade, but rest assured: we shall paint the right picture and send it off into the world. And as you well know, a picture is worth a thousand words…" coach Antić said.