Serbs wonder – finally a real team? (Team Profile)

Belgrade, Nov 26 (DPA) Serbia is looking forward to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa mixing hope that it finally has a “real team” with fear of another huge disappointment.

Serbia qualified directly and surefooted for the tournament, but it did the same four years ago, then as Serbia-Montenegro, only to be cast out after the opening stage with three humiliating defeats.

That disaster was further aggravated when Serbia failed to qualify for the finals of Euro and again embarrassed itself, in Olympic Games, provoking an effective boycott of the national team by its fans.

So though Serbia hired a star coach, its own Radomir Antic, in August 2008, just days before World Cup qualifications began, no euphoria followed promises of a “new start.”

Antic’s debut, a 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands in September two years ago, was seen by a few thousand spectators dotting the 50,000-seater Red Star Belgrade stadium.

The same stadium was packed on Oct 10, in Serbia’s homecoming qualifier, in which the capacity crowd saw the team off to Africa following a brilliant 5-0 drubbing of Romania.

In the two years meanwhile Antic has turned around and strongly pulled together a team previously plagued by clashing vanities and, reportedly, interests of shadowy managers pulling strings to push their merchandise into the squad in order to raise their price.

“He returned the cult of the national team and all players now take it very seriously,” said Mladen Krstajic, a defender who took part in the 2006 World Cup.

Serbia and Montenegro then allowed only one goal in 10 rounds of qualifications, but capitulated 10 times in just 270 minutes the team had in the tournament.

Antic has built the team around big stars with immaculate working ethics, as Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic and Chelsea’s Bane Ivanovic in defence, Inter Milan’s midfielder Dejan Stankovic and Serbia’s top up-and-comer, CSKA Moscow’s striker Milos Krasic.

In between, the big names are several others with strong playing time in the Bundesliga, Italy and Spain, like strikers Nikola Zigic and Marko Pantelic.

“I think this time it can finally be it,” says Isak Bogucanin, 40, who will travel to South Africa to watch Serbia play despite the exasperation of his expedition to Germany four years earlier.

“We were always let down by star players,” Bogucanin says, reciting a history of missed penalties, wasted chances and red cards on the record of leading players in crunch time.

Like tens of thousands of others, he now hopes that the tough Antic and the new breed of players will not play worse for Serbia than they do in their teams. According to Bogucanin, “that is all it would take to secure that we at least not pack our bags to go home after the first phase.”

The Coach:

Radomir Antic, 61, took Serbia over with the reputation of a crisis coach and the only man ever who had led the big Spanish three of Real and Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. Before becoming coach, he played for Partizan Belgrade, Fenerbahce Istanbul, Real Zaragoza and Luton in England.

Following a learning period as assistant coach at Partizan in the mid-1980s, Zaragoza, invited him to return at the bench. Real Madrid called him in 1991 and he later also coached Atletico and Barcelona.

Though he previously refused offers to coach Serbia, he changed his mind in August 2008, ending a four-year vacation. Previously boycotted by fans over poor results, the team qualified for the World Cup on top of the group, ahead of reigning world vice-champions, France.

The Star:

Manchester United’s defender and yet often crunchtime goalscorer Nemanja Vidic, 28, now reigns as Serbia’s top player, towering even above his captain and undisputed team leader, Inter Milan’s midfielder Dejan Stankovic.

Formerly with Red Star Belgrade, Vidic arrived in Manchester in 2006 after travelling the roundabout route which has become usual for Serbian players over the past two decades, via Russia and Spartak Moscow.

Tall and powerfully built, he is a part of formidable defensive tandems both in Manchester, with Rio Ferdinand, and in the national team, with Chelsea’s Bane Ivanovic. Since his move to Manchester for 7 million pounds ($12 million), the price tag for his contract has quadrupled.

Factfile:

Nicknames: Beli Orlovi (White Eagles); Previously Plavi (The Blues)

Founded: 1889

FIFA affiliation: 1904

Highest FIFA ranking: 8 – May 1998

Lowest FIFA ranking: 47 – December 2005

Previous World Cup appearances: 10 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1974, 1982, 1990, 1998, 2006)

Best World Cup performance: Fourth (1930, 1962) as Yugoslavia

Date qualified for finals: October 10, 2009