World Cup 2014: Mihajlovic’s Serbia remain a team to be feared
Mihajlovic is in charge of a Serbia team hit by rows and public anger but Scotland must still beware their talent
W HEN Sinisa Mihajlovic became the head coach of Serbia in May, he demanded that his players agreed, by signing a contract, to meet specified standards of behaviour. In the service of their country, they were expected to leave their mobile phones at home, sing the national anthem before matches and applaud that of their opponents.
All of which sounds a bit rich coming from Mihajlovic, who was known in his playing days as the Bomber from Borovo. Quite apart from that violent left foot, which was good for more than a record-breaking slew of net-bulging free-kicks, there was the spitting – he received an eight-match ban for depositing phlegm in Adrian Mutu’s ear – and the racist abuse of Patrick Vieira that also earned him a suspension.
But the tempestuous, grudge-bearing left-back, who rampaged about the pitch like an axeman during 14 years in Italy with Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio and Internazionale, appears to have turned over a new leaf at the age of 43. After his first match in charge of Serbia, a 2-0 defeat by Spain, he banned Adem Ljajic for bowing his head when he should have been belting out the words to Boze Pravde, the national anthem. Given Mihajlovic’s history – which includes a very public loyalty to Arkan, the war criminal – some blamed his political beliefs for the decision to punish a Muslim player. Others are not so sure. Nikola Burazer, a political scientist, and part-time Serbian football blogger, insists that the coach was guilty only of a clumsy attempt to foster spirit and respect in his squad.
“It had nothing to do with politics or nationalism,” says Burazer. “His mother is Croatian. He comes from a mixed marriage. His actions were too harsh and not very popular, but he was only trying to bring unity to the team and make them like a family. He doesn’t want them to be lazy or disrespectful. Mihajlovic lacked discipline on the pitch, but now, he sees himself in the players he is coaching. He wants to change them.”
Mihajlovic, in fact, is presiding over a Serbian revolution. Legends such as Dragan Stojkovic and Predrag Mijatovic have long gone, as have some of their more recent heavyweights, including Nemanja Vidic and Dejan Stankovic, both of whom retired from international football last year. Add to that the coach’s own determination to start afresh, and the upshot is a young, inexperienced team of whom no one knows what to expect.
Mihajlovic decided that radical change was needed. The country that will provide Scotland with their first opponents in the forthcoming World Cup qualifying campaign, at Hampden on Saturday afternoon, have had the stuffing knocked out of them these last two years. Ranked 13th on the planet when they competed in the 2010 World Cup finals, they have since entered into a sorry decline at club and international level. Their attempt to qualify for Euro 2012 was a disaster that led to the sacking of two coaches, Radomir Antic and Vladimir Petrovic, the latter after a sequence of poor results that included a 3-1 home defeat to Estonia. The abandoned match against Italy in Genoa, when visiting hooligans ran riot, was also a source of shame to the Serbian nation.
Vidic, who missed a crucial penalty in their final match, against Slovenia, was so disillusioned that he quit at the age of 30. “The atmosphere was really awful,” says Burazer. “Public opinion about the team was getting worse and worse. And, when something went wrong, he [Vidic] was the first to be criticised because he was one of the stars. When he missed the penalty against Slovenia, he came under a lot of scrutiny by journalists. Some even suggested that he had done it deliberately. The atmosphere was completely destroyed, and Vidic said ‘I’ve had enough’.”
The malaise was equally apparent among Serbia’s clubs. Their most prominent representative in Europe, Partizan Belgrade, picked up not a single point in the 2010/11 Champions League group stage. The following summer, Shamrock Rovers beat them in a Europa League qualifier. It is a far cry from the days when Mihajlovic lifted the European Cup with Red Star Belgrade.
The break-up of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent wars, are a long time ago now, but, unlike some of its Balkan neighbours, Serbia has not responded well to the aftermath. Clubs are still publicly-owned, still vehicles for corrupt politicians, and football remains a breeding ground for criminal activity. The national association has not undergone the necessary reform.
Serbia are now 35th in the world rankings, 11 places ahead of Scotland. Mihajlovic has talked a good game but, so far, the revolution has not materialised. Since assuming power, he has used 38 different players in four friendlies. They have lost three of those, drawn one, and scored just a solitary goal in the process.
In the course of the summer, Mihajlovic has dropped so many strikers, due mainly to their age, that he has been left with hardly any to choose from. Nicola Zigic (31), Milan Jovanovic (31) and Marko Pantelic (33) have all fallen out of favour. Unless Mihajlovic recalls one of them for the Scotland game, Dejan Lekic, who plays for Genclerbirligi in Turkey, could be his only recognised forward, and not a very prolific one at that.
The midfield has also been stripped of talent, from 20-year-old Ljajic to 27-year-old Milos Krasic and the retired Stankovic but, in Zoran Tosic, below left, they have a winger who can cause Scotland problems. When Manchester United signed him for £7 million in 2009, some were billing him as the next Ryan Giggs, but he made only five appearances (no starts) in 18 months at Old Trafford. Nicknamed Bambi, he was deemed too lightweight for the English Premier League, and after a loan spell with Cologne, moved to CSKA Moscow, where he is now, at 25, fulfilling much of his potential.
Serbia’s greatest strength is in defence. Despite the loss of Vidic, they have big players from big clubs. Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea), Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City), Neven Subotic (Borussia Dortmund) and Milan Bisevac (Lyon) are joined by 19-year-old Matija Nastasic, who signed for Manchester City on Friday.
It rather puts into perspective the portrayal of a country in crisis – Serbia are still higher up the rankings than Scotland.
There are widespread doubts about Mihajlovic, who was sacked by Fiorentina last year, and seems to be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut but Craig Levein would be well advised not to get too carried away with the pessimism in Serbia. “The fans expect them not to qualify,” says Burazer. “Everybody thinks Belgium, then Croatia, will finish ahead of Serbia in the group. Nobody mentions Scotland.”
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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