At the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand at the time, the foundations of today’s Serbian national team were laid. It ended with a final won against the green-gold
It is said that the Serbia national football team, which played its first match on August 18, 2006, was actually born in 2015. In distant New Zealand. There, at the World Championships, the under 20 boys signed a pact with the future: one game at a time, up to the final against Brazil, the very favorite par excellence. The 1-1 with which we go into extra time is already a surprise. One step away from penalties, the Seleçao goes unbalanced, Nemanja Maksimovic cuts the green-gold defense like a knife through butter and finds the goal on the counterattack “which sends Serbia into history”, acclaims Belgrade TV. And at the same time it brings her out of her troubled past. It is the announcement of a new generation. Which in the meantime has grown up, and tonight in Doha it starts again from Brazil.
For Milinkovic-Savic and his companions it is the match of destiny, if three clues prove it: after the previous one seven years ago, the polls placed the two national teams in the same group already at the 2018 World Cup. There was no match in Russia – Paulinho and Thiago Silva handled the practice with one goal in each half – and Serbia sadly went out in the first round. But as the Lazio midfielder says today to the Fifa microphones, “everything happened very quickly at the time”. He and many other team-mates did not take part in the qualifying matches, “finding themselves called up by surprise and with the feeling that they didn’t deserve to be there”. Well, it was early. The heroes of Auckland, perhaps with guilty delay of the selectors, were just appearing at the senior national team. Today, however, they are the backbone of this Serbia. Which shines thanks to the goals of the forwards – Mitrovic, Vlahovic, Jovic –, the plays of captain Tadic and the assists of Kostic. But his silent soul is in Rajkovic, Veljkovic, Babic, Maksimovic, Grujic, in the Milinkovic-Savic brothers.
They are the seven veterans of that U20 World Cup, four of whom also won the 2013 Under 19 European Championship. There was also Mitrovic, the match-winner of Lisbon who gave Qatar to Serbia in the 90th minute without going through the play-offs. Another watershed in Balkan football: lhe alchemist behind the team spirit is Dragan ‘Piksi’ Stojkovic. The local legend who in March 2021 took over a wounded national team – out of the previous Europeans – and then turned it inside out. In the interpreters and in the attitude. Mitrovic becomes overflowing, the defense a wall, Milinkovic’s direction brainless: in 14 official matches under Stojkovic in charge, Serbia have won 10 and drawn 3, with the only painless knockout against Norway in the Nations League. “At first it was strange for us to let such a famous person train us”, Sergej again. “But we’ve learned things now that we’ll treasure for the rest of our career. And he made us aware of our means”.
Stojkovic really wanted these guys. Perhaps glimpsing traces of the zlatna generacija: his golden generation. Even that formidable Yugoslavia – but not Piksi, already an established champion – started from the victory at the U20 World Cup, in Chile in 1987. It was the team of Suker and Prosinecki, which three years later would enchant Italy thanks to the goals of its technical leader. Everything – well beyond football – ended up in the quarterfinals, lost on penalties to Argentina. Today Stojkovic aims to settle the old pending bill: Serbia, in Belgrade they are convinced, has the means to reach the top eight. To do that, you need an injection of confidence. Or another excellent scalp after Portugal: surprising Brazil would be the best encouragement of a protagonist tournament. And who is left of those green-and-gold mocked in New Zealand? Only Gabriel Jesus. The Seleçao is used to winning and forgetting quickly. Maybe too much. Watch out for Maksimovic’s entries.