Ireland travel with self-belief as they take on youthful Serbia
Serbia have invested heavily in fostering talent and the youth teams are beginning to make waves
Predrag Rajkovic of Serbia holds up the under-20 World Cup trophy following Serbia’s victory inthe final against Brazil in Auckland,New Zealand, in June.Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Their recent results in friendlies have been promising but it is hard to know if Serbia have shaken off the problems that wrecked their Euro2016 qualification campaign ahead of Monday evening’s World Cup qualifier.
However, regardless of Belgrade, Martin O’Neill expects the Republic of Ireland’s group to produce a fairly even four-way tussle for its one automatic and one play-off spot over the next 15 months. He believes that, a fifth side, Moldova, who took just two points last time around, can also cause some of the contenders problems.
On paper Wales and Austria kick off as the teams to beat despite their starkly contrasting fortunes in France over the summer, but for this Irish group there will be a particular motivation to make it to Russia in two years’ time.
Many of the players will not be around for another crack at getting the team to a World Cup for the first time since 2002, and there is little evidence that those who will depart can be adequately replaced by the time the qualifiers for Qatar come around.
Certainly, the contrast with Serbia in terms of age could scarcely be more stark.
Ireland head to Belgrade with a squad whose average age is just short of 31, slightly up on the group that went to Georgia two years ago despite Shay Given and Robbie Keane having departed.
The European average is around 27, but the corresponding figure for Serbia’s current squad is 25.5, and the integration of members of the side that won the under-20 World Cup in New Zealand last year means that is probably dropping.
To put that in context, if Ireland was a club in one of Europe’s top five leagues it would, according to figures compiled by Switzerland’s CIES Football Observatory, have the second oldest of 98 teams (only Serie A’s Chievo would be higher), whereas the Serbs would be right down towards the other end of the scale, on a par with Tottenham, the Premier League’s youngest, or Germany’s Borussia Dortmund.
In all, 11 members of the 27-strong squad named by Slavoljub Muslin for this game are 23 or under compared to two in O’Neill’s panel, and one of those, Cyrus Christie, would not make the cut by the time Georgia come calling next month.
It is no fluke that the Serbs have so much young talent to call on. The country’s clubs have a strong tradition of producing quality players in their academies, and Serbia has become the leading supplier of players to the continent’s better leagues after Brazil with the two big Belgrade outfits, Partizan and Red Star, leading the way.
Red Star are in joint seventh on the list, again complied by CIES, with Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon amongst the clubs in between.
It is big business. Despite having a population of just seven million, and football facing stiff competition for the country’s young participants from basketball, tennis and volleyball, Serbia has become a happy hunting ground for foreign clubs.
Aside from producing players for their own first teams, the clubs can generate millions in revenue each year from sales. In one short spell three seasons ago, Partizan sold Lazar Markovic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Marko Specovic, Milos Jojic and Ivan Ivanov to Benfica, Anderlecht, Olympicos, Borussia Dortmund and Basel respectively for a combined total estimated to have been around €20 million.
The first two were subsequently sold on to English clubs (Liverpool and Newcastle) for almost twice as much again between them, although Markovic has just started his second loan spell away from Anfield, at Sporting, having failed to impress in his first season in the Premier League.
Still, Liverpool have been back, buying 20-year-old midfielder Marko Grujic for nearly €6 million from Red Star in the January window then loaning him back until the summer. He came on to make his Premier League debut two weeks ago.
All three feature in the senior squad for Monday’s game having also come through the ranks of the national association, the FSS, whose own youth development plan was intended to augment the work already being done by the clubs.
In 2007 the association signed a deal with its Spanish counterpart which provided information exchanges across a wide range of areas and regular friendlies at all ages. Coaches also went to study the work being done by the Italians and French at their development centres.
Everything they learned was put into practice back in Belgrade where they set about building a school, their House of Football, in Stara Pazova. With seven high-quality pitches and various ancillary facilities, the place rivalled Red Star’s well established Zemunelo academy when it opened in 2011.
At underage level it did not take long for the results to start improving. The country had finished second at the 2007 under-21 European Championships in the Netherlands with a side that included Branislav Ivanovic, now with Chelsea and Zoran Tosic, once at Manchester United and now at CSKA Moscow, and the pair are now captain and vice-captain respectively of the senior team.
From 2009 Serbia became regulars at under-19 European Championship finals, winning the event in 2013 and reaching the semi-finals the following season. These sides have started to feed players, who have spread out to clubs across Europe, into the senior squad over recent years.
Right decisionRadovan Curcic
“We still cannot compare to the biggest nations, but Stara Pazova has given us the possibility to work with all the amazing talent we have, and to educate coaches. There are a lot of people involved, and there is a lot of enthusiasm.”
Igor Jankovic, head of grassroots football development at the FSS, told the Guardian some time back that part of his country’s success in developing talent had been a reluctance to follow just one particular philosophy.
“Youth players in Partizan are managed by 10 vastly different coaches,” he said. “Each coach adds a layer to the player’s development and provides a multi-dimensional definition to the concept of talent.”
Still, if you were to look for patterns it is worth noting that a study of European international teams that played in 2015 found that on average the Serbs were both the tallest and heaviest of those surveyed.
It has not yet made for instant senior success; not by a long shot. The team made it to the 2010 World Cup – they beat France into second place in qualifying, thereby forcing Thierry Henry and company into the play-offs – but had a disappointing tournament, finishing last in their group despite a 1-0 win over Germany.
Aside from that they have not finished higher than third in their last five attempts. Last time they had a meltdown, finishing fourth after a poor start – a highly politically-charged game against Albania in Belgrade that had to be abandoned and a subsequent points deduction.
All of which contributes to the notion that, as O’Neill himself contends, it is his side that goes into Monday’s game with the greater recent cause for collective self-confidence.
“Listen,” he says, “at the end of the day, during that [the Euro 2016] campaign we have taken four points off Germany, the world champions. We’ve had to fight against Bosnia to get through, and we’ve had some big, big matches over the 12 games. There is a bit of strength coming through, that strength of knowing you can still play against . . . I think the players went into the Italy game on the back of having been beaten by Belgium but still feeling ‘’hang on a minute it’s not that long ago that we beat Germany and came through against Bosnia’.
“We had to battle the whole way through, but we did fine out there, and if we had had a couple of more days I honestly feel we could have beaten France. But that is gone now; that is tournament football where things like that can happen. We’re now back into qualification mode.”
High on the list is the fact that key players like Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan are all significantly the wrong side of 30. John O’Shea was one of the standout performers in the last campaign and he, if we were to be a little uncharitable about it, is actually just about closer to 40 these days.
It remains to be seen whether Muslin, whose record suggests he is something of a journeyman coach, is really the man to achieve the potential of this rapidly evolving Serbia squad or whether this might yet be a campaign too soon for them. Ultimately, though, it might just be that their time is coming and Ireland’s is running out.