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Serbia will embark on their first World Cup for eight years
Serbia will embark on their first World Cup for eight years | © Vlad1988 / Shutterstock
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Why Serbia is Optimistically Pessimistic About the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Picture of John William Bills
Updated: 28 April 2018
For the first time since 2010, Serbia are back on the international footballing stage. The team navigated a difficult group to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, but it would be incorrect to say the fans are full of optimism ahead of the tournament. In typically Serbian fashion, a pessimistic optimism fills the air.

Post-Yugoslav struggles

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.

Tell them not to, and they likely will.
Serbian football has become better known for fan violence in recent years | © Fotosr52 / Shutterstock

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?

Aleksandar Kolarov pictured in action during the UEFA Champions League, game between Chelsea FC and AS Roma at Stamford Bridge stadium
Serbia full-back Aleksandar Kolarov pictured in action for his club side AS Roma | © CosminIftode / Shutterstock

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.

Milinkovic-Savic action during the match Lazio vs Atalanta, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy
Milinkovic-Savic is reckoned to be a star of the future | © Marco Iacobucci EPP / Shutterstock

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.

National football team photo Serbia during the friendly match national football team of Ukraine vs national team of Serbia, Metalist stadium, Ukraine
Serbia’s footballers will attempt to do their nation proud in Russia | © Vlad1988 / Shutterstock

Champions-in-waiting

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.