Jonathan Wilson reports on the region of Serbia that may have produced a golden generation

Serbian football ought to be downtrodden. There is no new money there to purchase a fleet of promising Brazilians, corruption and crowd violence are rife, and attendances are falling. And yet, despite it all, there is genuine hope, and it lies in an extraordinary generation of youth players.

There are those in Serbia who are suggesting that this summer’s European Under-21 Championship in Sweden could be the equivalent of the World Youth Cup in Chile in 1987, when a Yugoslavia side that had left Sinisa Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic and Alen Boksic at home won the tournament playing sumptuous football. The Croatian core of that side – Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Jarni – emerged on the other side of the war to take third place at the 1998 World Cup.

This Under-21 side was immensely impressive in qualifying. Forget the fact that they only finished joint-top of their group with Belarus: they took four points off them, and avenged their only defeat – away in Budapest – by beating Hungary 8-0 in Belgrade, a game in which Hertha Berlin’s Gojko Kacar, nominally a holding midfielder, scored five, and the Ajax forward Miralem Sulejmani converted two penalties to add sparkle to an exceptional display.

The Under-19 side is perhaps even more promising. Having put three past Northern Ireland and five past Albania in the European Championship qualifiers in Newry last November, they then thrashed an England side featuring Jack Rodwell, Victor Moses and Henri Lansbury 4-1. Adem Ljajic, who has already been signed by Manchester United, was superb in that game, as was Danijel Aleksic. Both are 17, and both are expected to step up and play in Sweden. In May, Serbia became the first side to qualify for the Under-19 finals in Ukraine by breezing through a second-phase group also comprising Finland, Hungary and Austria.

According to Petar Puaca, a former Red Star player who runs a football school in Novi Sad, the capital of the Vojvodina region, Aleksic is the real genius. “Players like him are born once ever 20 to 30 years,” he said. Aleksic is also representative of the rise of FK Vojvodina, something based almost entirely on the promotion of young talent. Four members of the full national squad – Milos Krasic, Milan Jovanovic, Milan Stepanov and Kacar – have come through their youth ranks, and it surely won’t be long before the 20-year-old midfielder Dusan Tadic joins them.

Vojvodina may pinch second place in the Serbian league from Red Star this season, but with only two league titles to their name they are not a major club. In a sense, though, that is the secret of their success.

“They work without pressure,” said the former Red Star manager Milorad Kosanovic, himself a proud son of Novi Sad. “That means they have room for young players, and can give them a chance in the first team. They have no money to buy players, so almost without knowing it, they have a system that works.”

There are an estimated 25 football schools in the Vojvodina area, which suggests a depth of talent, and the real chance of being given an opportunity at the local club allied to a fierce local pride – the Vojvodina region, which was autonomous in the federal Yugoslavia, is the heartland of Serbia’s ethnic Hungarian population – means the ostensibly more glamorous academies in Belgrade hold little allure.

“Sport in Vojvodina has always been at a high level,” said Kosanovic, who has his own theories as to why that might be. “For the last 50 years there’s been a lot of mixing of nationalities here, and so you see a lot of healthy people. Our kind of life and culture is different as well. People here like to practise sport.” Surprisingly, given how flat the area is, more skiing equipment is sold per head of population in Vojvodina than anywhere else in Serbia.

But it is football that is catching the eye. The irony of a region that sees itself as distinct from Serbia powering the resurgence of Serbian football is perhaps best glossed over. For now the game is enjoying a mood of optimism: for, as Martin Luther said, who has the youth, has the future. 

From WSC 269 July 2009

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