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Serbia, Belgium future WC hopefuls

Serbia's national soccer team coach Sinisa Mihajlovic conducts a training session at Hampden Park Stadium
Mihajlovic has molded Serbia into one of the finest young national teams in Europe.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

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Few players have ever attracted such hostility in their careers as Sinisa Mihajlovic. Even the sober English paper The Guardian once described him as “the nastiest man in football.” He was also one of the greatest set-play specialists the game has known, he won the European Cup with Crvena Zvezda, a Cup-Winners’ Cup with Lazio and Italian titles with Lazio and Internazionale. He was also banned for racially abusing Patrick Vieira, spat in Adrian Mutu’s ear and offered robustly controversial opinions on the Yugoslav conflict. His short fuse made him a walking red card. He was the image of the snarling Serb that western Europe was minded to hate in the nineties.

Fast forward to now. Mihajlovic manages Serbia, and he has molded it into one of the finest young national teams in Europe. On Friday, his team meets Belgium, a side that is another formidable emerging force. It’s a clash of the next generation in Europe, and it is one of the most tantalizing matches on offer this weekend.

Mihajlovic is nothing like the monster he was made out to be. In person he is charming, almost shy. He is refreshingly open about the mistakes he has made, most of which were down to the combination of quick temper and ferocious pride. The Vieira incident probably left the biggest stain on his character and while, of course, there is never mitigation for racial abuse, Mihajlovic, who made a full and public apology on the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, insists he was racially abused first (UEFA’s approach to anti-black racism often seems half-hearted, but to anti-Roma racism it is almost non-existent). And statements expressing sorrow over the death of the warlord Arkan are perhaps understandable when he was responsible for saving the lives of Mihajlovic’s parents (his mother is Croat, his father Serb) when Croatian forces retook Vukovar towards the end of the war.

As a manager, his record at Bologna, Catania and Fiorentina was mixed, and there were severe doubts when he took over as Serbia boss in May. He was criticized for chopping and changing his side but a 6-1 win over Wales in the last qualifier suggests he has found a balance that works. The back four of Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea), Matija Nastasic (Manchester City), Neven Subotic (Borussia Dortmund) and Aleksandr Kolarov (Manchester City) – provides a stable platform and, against Wales at least, the attacking midfield trio of the 18-year-old Lazar Markovic (Partizan), the 23-year-old Dusan Tadic (FC Twente) and the 25-year-old Zoran Tosic (CSKA Moscow) were exceptional. Ajax’s Miralem Sulejmani, who is still only 23 but seems to have been hailed as the future of Serbian football, can’t even get in the side.

Where they stand

Belgium and Croatia sit atop of World Cup qualifying Group A standings with seven points each.
RANK COUNTRY GP P +/-
1 Belgium 3 7 +5
2 Croatia 3 7 +2
3 Serbia 3 4 +2
4 Wales 3 3 -6
5 Scotland 3 2 -1
6 Macedonia FYR 3 1 -2
 

Almost more vital than personnel, though, is discipline. Mihajlovic may seem an odd figure to impose it but he is as aware as anybody of how cliques have undermined Serbian and Yugoslav football in the past. The cycle, in fact, is familiar: Serbia (or Yugoslavia) qualifies well for the World Cup, suffer a cataclysmic falling out shortly before the tournament, underperforms, and then spends two years sorting out the mess as it fails to qualify for the European championship.

Where Radomir Antic, who took Serbia to the last World Cup, tried to create a family atmosphere, Mihajlovic has tried to stimulate patriotic pride. That will always be a contentious issue in Serbia, particularly for those of Muslim origin. Adem Ljajic’s refusal to sing the national anthem – he said on grounds of faith – has already cost him his place in the squad, although he is such an awkward personality (see, for example, the then-Fiorentina manager Delio Rossi punching him in the dug-out last May after he had sarcastically applauded the decision to substitute him) that a clash with Mihajlovic was always likely at some point.

Despite that, with no outfielders over 30 in Mihajlovic’s squad and 12 aged 23 or under, the sense is of rejuvenation. As Belgium knows, though, the process of renewal is testing. "Serbia is starting a new phase where a lot of new players must be integrated,” the Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen. “It looks like the situation we were in a few years ago and everyone knows how hard that is. We must take advantage of that."

With 14 Belgians playing in the Premier League, plus the likes of Axel Witsel at Zenit St. Petersburg, Steven Defour at Porto and Dries Mertens at PSV, this feels like the coming of a golden age. In the past, there has often been the sense that Belgian football has underperformed, in part because of the split between those of Flemish and those of Walloon background. Even in 1986, when Guy Thys’s side reached the semifinal of the World Cup, there was tension between those who played for Anderlecht and those from Club Brugge. The suggestion now is that with so many of the squad being of immigrant background or playing abroad, the traditional fault-line has become blurred.

Still, for all their potential, there is a sense that Belgium needs to deliver soon. Their Euro qualifying was stymied by a tough group which matched them with Germany and Turkey. This group, with Croatia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia FYR, is a real opportunity. “In a way, it’s this time or never for Belgium,” said Eden Hazard, whose performances since moving to Chelsea in the summer have made him arguably the outstanding attacking player of the Premier League season so far.

“We have a great generation of players, but we have to do it on the pitch,” added Hazard. “We have talked enough. It’s time for action. The talent is here, we know that. It’s everything or nothing and we absolutely have to qualify for the World Cup.”

Fellaini misses Friday’s game with a knee injury and, while Belgium can still field a central midfield of Defour, Witsel and Mousa Dembele, his energy and ball-winning quality may be missed. Belgium’s problem for most of the last couple of years, though, has been converting possession into chances. At Wembley in May, for instance, it dominated the ball in losing 1-0 against England but created only one chance of note, a pot-shot from the right-back Guillaume Gillet that grazed the post. If Belgium is to deliver on its promise, it really needs one of its two 19-year-old forwards, Romelu Lukaku (on loan at West Brom from Chelsea) and Christian Benteke (Aston Villa) to become a genuinely potent threat.

Both Serbia and Belgium have begun with a win and a draw from its opening two qualifiers. Friday’s game isn’t just about trying to gain ground in the race for a place in Brazil 2014: it’s also the battle of two teams of tomorrow.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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