Recognized as the sole successor of the Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro by both FIFA and UEFA, Serbia has always been proud of its football history.
Semi-finalists of the 1930 FIFA World Cup, two-time UEFA European Championship runners-up in 1960 and 1968, and the 1960 Summer Olympics gold medallists, Serbia boast a long and rich football tradition.
Serbia has been long renowned for its raw football talent, which has steadily yielded fascinating results at youth ranks. Most recent history has seen Serbian Under-19 national football team being crowned European champions in Lithuania in 2013, as the golden generation of players lead by the 21-year-old Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic defeated France 1-0 in the final to lift the European trophy.
The latest of the formidable results by the glorious generation of Red Star’s Luka Jovic and Marko Grujic was recorded this year in New Zealand where Serbia Under-20 national football team became the world champions, having beaten the tournament’s favourites Brazil 2-1 in an exhilarating match which was solved after extra time.
This year’s title has been Serbia’s second FIFA U-20 World Cup crown, after the triumphant year of 1987, and it has also served as the definite confirmation of the nation’s talent and passion for the game.
However, much to the contrast of their young colleagues, the Serbia senior squad has been depressively disappointing over the last 15 years, failing to qualify for any major tournament since the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
With the experienced manager Radomir Anti? at helm, Serbia went into the tournament as the dark horses.
A star-studded squad with some of the members such as Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov still actively involved, Serbia opened the campaign with the surprising 1-0 victory over Germany, but had ultimately failed to go past the group stage, having been beaten by Ghana 1-0 and Australia 2-1 respectively, to finish the campaign last in the group.
Demise of the Serbian national team began with the sacking of former Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona manager Radomir Anti?, two games into the Euro 2012 qualifying process which was subsequently rendered yet another – chronic even – disappointment, as Serbia failed to qualify for the European Championships, making it at the time 12 years since the last involvement in the competition.
Lost confidence, poor atmosphere and the lack of healthy team-spirit have all been the main deficiencies of the Serbian national team during this period. Unfortunately, little has changed since.
Current AC Milan manager Siniša Mihajlovi? was expected to shake things around as he was appointed the national coach in 2012, but his unique and unorthodox methods, most notably his famous expulsion of Adem Ljaji?, who refused to sing the national anthem, marked the entire spell which ended in yet another disappointing failure to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
With their seventh coach since 2010, Serbia began the new era in 2014 opting to go for their former assistant, caretaker and Serbia U21 coach Radovan ?ur?i? taking over from Dick Advocaat two games in the new qualifying cycle for the Euro 2016.
With the team valued at €176.95 million and some of the star names such as the captain Branislav Ivanovi?, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nemanja Mati?, Dušan Tadi?, Lazar Markovi? or Aleksandar Mitrovi? at his disposal, Radovan ?ur?i? was expected to lift the team-spirit and restore the lost confidence in the players he used to work with at younger levels of the national team.
Experiments with foreign managers Javier Clemente and Dick Advocaat did not prove successful, Serbian FA opted for ‘the man of the people’ who had the complete understanding of the players’ needs and requirements.
Impatient for the glamorous squad to finally start producing worthy results, the fans have been putting a lot of pressure on the national team. Somewhat quite reasonably, considering the individual quality to the Serbian squad.
With 82% of the players plying their trade abroad, Serbian internationals were expected to share the same determination and effort they displayed week in and week out as the key-members in their clubs. However, lack of resolve, motivation and dedication were recognized as the main problems by the Serbia faithful.
The problems are rooted much deeper, though, and players were not the only ones to take the blame.
As the country of many issues, Serbia failed to pass the adequate sports laws that would regulate the football scene, still engrossed in the socialists’ rules and regulations. Poor infrastructure and strong hooligan base have been the deteriorating factors as well.
With huge pressure on their back and nation’s pride at stake, Serbian national team opened their UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers with a 1-1 draw against Armenia and notorious game against Albania which was abandoned after a drone was flown into the Partizan Stadium, creating chaos on pitch.
Serbia were deducted three points that were originally awarded to them by the UEFA, went minus two points at one moment in their group and eventually succumbed to their old illnesses.
Lack of determination, will and desire were followed by the predictable tactics and obsolete playing style from Radovan ?ur?i?, ending the group stage with only four points from eight games.
It has now been 16 years since Serbia last made it to the European Championships, and the latest disappointment has had a huge impact on both the players and the management as well.
Getting to the bottom of the nation’s chronic failure will require deep structural analysis from the Serbian FA which are at the moment blaming the players for their most recent uninspiring showings on 13th November against Czech Republic. Serbia were dealt a huge 4-1 blow in their friendly visit, and it seems as if the Czech debacle has been the final straw.
The game was followed by the incident involving Fiorentina’s Nenad Tomovi? and Newcastle United’s Aleksandar Mitrovi? who were blaming each other in the locker room for the poor showings in Ostrava.
The atmosphere in the squad has hit the rock bottom, and even the ever calm and composed Nemanja Mati? threatened to quit the national team after the latest defeat.
Chelsea midfielder publicly shared his disappointment, claiming that there is no use in wasting his efforts when other players lack the willpower to perform at the highest level and to represent their country with honour and courage.
Hoping to turn the new page following the Euro 2016 bid debacle, the Serbia’s new dawn has quickly seen dark clouds once again setting upon the national football team which is preparing to enter the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying cycle with a huge elephant in the room.
And for the past 15 years no one has yet been able to get that elephant out.
About the author – Miloš Markovic
Sports journalist from Serbia, Editor in Cheif at Sportske.net and contributor to FutbolgradLive. Worked with Inforstrada and FIFA covering Serbia’s international games during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.