They seem to do things that little bit bigger in Serbian football just now. The manner of the Serbian federation president’s exit this week sort of underlined it. There we all were, thinking John Delaney had left under a cloud but Slavisa Kokeza needs more time to clear his name of allegations of links to a group of ultras who are said to have tortured then killed rival fans and plotted to assassinate the country’s president.
Then there was the recent recruitment of their national team manager. The FAI seized upon the terms of Stephen Kenny’s contract to poach him from Dundalk without paying the compensation the club expected. The FSS became embroiled in a three-way standoff with Dragan Stojkovic and then employers, Chinese side Guangzhou R&F. The club wanted compensation to let him go, the manager held out almost endlessly for a pay-off based on a reported €8 million annual salary. No wonder Chinese football is in trouble.
Inevitably, some sort of accommodation was reached but the process delayed the appointment and the upshot in that Serbia’s first game under their new boss, 56-year-old Stojkovic or ‘Piksi’ as he is commonly known . . . one of the greatest of the many great players to come out of what was then Yugoslavia, is a World Cup group meeting with qualification rivals Ireland.
After the team’s loss to Scotland on penalties in November’s European Championship playoff, which the locals had very much expected to win, there is confidence again this time but an awareness too that with no guarantees in games like this, the rushed nature of the preparations is far from ideal.
Stojkovic, though, has been quick to make his mark. His stellar reputation as a player brings with it the authority to trample other big names and Inter defender Aleksandar Kolarov’s international career seems to have been effectively ended just six caps short of his century, with his omission from the squad for this and the games to follow against Portugal and away to Azerbaijan.
Luka Milivojevic, Adem Ljajic of Besiktas and Napoli’s Nikola Maksimovic were all left out too with the Crystal Palace midfielder, like the others, just 29, following Nemanja Matic into international retirement.
It is quite the clear out and gives the new coach a fair bit of room for manoeuvre. What allows him to do it is a very solid looking squad of existing players and the emergence of talent like defender Nikola Milenkovic and striker Dusan Vlahovic, 23 and 21 respectively and both at Fiorentina, which is regarded back at home as a stepping towards much bigger things.
The form of Vlahovic, in particular, is a concern heading into Wednesday’s game with the young Belgrade native having scored 12 times in Serie A in what has been by his best of three seasons so far in Italy.
He has one in four for his country, the goal coming after he was introduced from the bench as the Serbs beat Russia 5-0 in the Nations League last November, and he seems set to get the opportunity to make even more an impact under the new coach.
“We’ve always had talented young players,” says Milos Dusanovic, host of podcast The Serbia Football Show, “it’s just a question of whether that talent can be turned into success with the national team which hasn’t happened in a long time.”
They did, to be fair, get to the World Cup in 2018, at Ireland’s expense, topping the group by two points after winning in Dublin thanks to a Kolarov goal and consigning Martin O’Neill’s side to a playoff that was lost badly over two legs to Denmark.
One of the scorers from the 2-2 match between the two sides in Belgrade earlier in that campaign, Dusan Tadic, was named as Kolarov’s successor as team captain on Tuesday. At 32, the Ajax forward remains one of the outstanding talents in a squad that plays its football across a dozen European leagues and which is rather better represented in the continent’s main club competitions than Ireland’s is.
Tadic’s outstanding campaign came just two seasons ago when he scored 28 goals in 34 league games as Ajax won the title and nine in 18 as they made the semi-finals of the Champions League. It was very comfortably more than he had managed in four Premier League seasons at Southampton, who sold him to the Dutch club in the summer of 2018 for just €11.4 million plus a couple of million more in add-ons. At least they were probably all earned by Christmas.
Asked if he would settle for a repeat of the draw against Ireland at the team’s pre-match press conference, Tadic, predictably, didn’t think so: “Last time we came from behind so we were happy. We would want more this time, we want to win.”
Stojkovic, who, unless the translation was adding something, seemed intent at times on falling out with the local media at the earliest opportunity, dressed up his earlier public assertion that they will win with some minor expressions of respect for the opposition.
There is little question, though, that Serbian confidence is at pre Scotland levels again. The Scots showed of course that that is not necessarily anything to be unnerved by.