Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, international football hasn’t been particularly kind to Serbia. The team hasn’t suffered for a lack of talent, but the nation’s three World Cup appearances (two as what was left of Yugoslavia) don’t make for fun reading. An injury time goal by Edgar Davids saw them eliminated at the first knockout stage in 1998, before the team suffered the ignominy of finishing dead last in 2006. In 2010, Serbia beat Germany 1-0 in Port Elizabeth, but finished bottom of its group nonetheless.
Each failed attempt at qualifying has seen the public mood weakened, and there wasn’t much in the way of expectation when Serbia found itself in a tough qualification group for 2018. Wales, Republic of Ireland and Austria stood in the way of the Serbs, with the majority of fans expecting little glimmers of hope but disappointment at the end of it all.
A suspiciously quiet qualification campaign
Serbia thus defied all expectations to qualify with relative ease, finishing top of the group and suffering just the one defeat (a 3-2 reverse away at Austria in the penultimate round). Qualifying for Russia was one thing, but it was the atmosphere around the team that was the most encouraging. For the first time in what felt like a lifetime, a campaign passed without any in-fighting, retirements, fan problems or controversies. Was a new era dawning on Serbian football?
A return to chaos
Of course not. Coach Slavoljub Muslin’s reward for Serbia’s first successful qualification in almost a decade was the sack, the pragmatic coach removed ostensibly for failing the bring young players into the team. Lazio’s rising star Sergej Milinković-Savić was at the heart of that discussion, and the Spanish-born midfielder was subsequently called up for the first match of the post-Mulsin era.
Mladen Krstajić took over, and the matches since have seen a little bit too much experimentation for the fan’s liking. Heading into its first tournament in eight years, Serbia’s fans want the team to be settled and clear in its plans. Instead, the chaos that has often plagued Serbian football has reared its ugly head once again.
What to expect in Russia?
Serbia hasn’t been given the easiest of draws, quite the opposite in fact. Brazil, Costa Rica and Switzerland await in what is arguably the toughest group, but there is reason for optimism. The instability caused by Muslin’s sacking has seen the team fall upon a good mix of youth and experience, with some of its key players finally stepping up at domestic level. Alexander Mitrović, the team’s hugely popular striker, has seen his career resurrected at Fulham following a frustrating tenure at Newcastle United, and the big forward has taken that form to the international stage.
Despite this, the unpredictable nature of Serbian football means many fans don’t expect the team to progress to the knockout stages. Nothing is expected from the game with Brazil, and many fans would be just as happy with positive performances against Switzerland and Costa Rica than anything else. Much like the rest of Serbian society, its people crave one very simple thing—stability.
The Serbs are nothing if not enigmatic however, and the most pessimistic of football fans will struggle to hold back their national pride when the subject comes up. Supporters in Belgrade, Novi Sad and the rest will claim to expect a first round elimination, but as the conversation progresses, these same voices will say that the knockouts are the minimum expectation. Mitrović is in form, Milinković-Savić is going to be a star, and the Serbian strength will be too much for the opposition.
It’s all bluster of course, but the prospect of a first World Cup in eight years will do that to a football fan. Whatever the results, you can guarantee that the Serbs will be just as happy as they are in disappointment, when all is said and done.