One look at the current FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is all it takes to realise that Montenegro are very much a team on the up. In September, FIFA's newest member association leapt no fewer than 33 places to 40th in the world, the best-ever ranking of their brief football history. Having started at the very bottom on zero points three years ago, the Falcons have been making impressive progress ever since.
Montenegro's recent break into the top 50 teams in the world came courtesy of their results in the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign, which got underway this month. The east Europeans won both of their opening Group G matches, at home to Wales (1-0) and in Bulgaria (1-0), putting them level with England at the top of the table on six points. "It’s an incredible feeling," said captain Mirko Vucinic, who scored the winner against Bulgaria. Coach Zlatko Kranjcar even felt confident enough to sound a warning, saying: "We haven’t shown our full potential yet".
The Falcons will soon have another chance to prove their worth, as they face the two powerhouses in their group at the start of October. They begin with a tricky tie against 2010 FIFA World Cup™ participants Switzerland on 8 October, before tackling group favourites England on 12 October. "We’ve got off to a great start and we want to carry on in the same vein," said Kranjcar when he announced his squad for the two matches. "We’ll be competing against a couple of tough opponents but we’ve proved that we’re a strong team. We’ll need a lot of determination against Switzerland but we mustn’t put too much pressure on ourselves. The Swiss are the ones who are expected to pick up a result, not us."
Montenegro already gave a glimpse of their quality in the qualifiers for this year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Having never played a qualifying match before, the team found themselves in Group 8 alongside four-time FIFA World Cup-winners Italy but gave a good account of themselves, admittedly finishing second to bottom but picking up nine points in the process and registering two goalless draws against Republic of Ireland.
We’ve got five or six excellent players, our domestic football is at a decent level and there is definitely progress that we can make. We’ve got the talent.
Four years prior to that, the team entered the qualifiers for Germany 2006 as part of a joint team with Serbia, an entity formed after the former Yugoslavia was disbanded in 2003. Serbia and Montenegro had almost immediate success, topping their group with six wins and four draws from their matches with the likes of Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgium and qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals.
After the two countries split, the Montenegro Football Association separated from Serbia, and membership of UEFA and FIFA followed in January and June 2007 respectively. "We’re becoming part of a wonderful footballing family," said a delighted FA president Dejan Savicevic at the time. "For us and for our young players, it's a real opportunity to make a name for our country." Two years later, the former AC Milan player and Yugoslavian international cut a confident figure. "We’ve got five or six excellent players, our domestic football is at a decent level and there is definitely progress that we can make. We’ve got the talent."
Roma striker Vucinic has since written his name in the history books on three accounts. The three-time player of the year in his home country scored Montenegro’s first ever goal in the 2-1 win over Hungary in March 2007, which he followed up with their first ever goal in EURO qualifying (against Wales) and FIFA World Cup qualifying (against Bulgaria).
Montenegro are certainly not resting on their laurels, and the potential for further improvement is clearly there. Coach Kranjcar has plenty of other experienced top-class players to call upon beside the captain Vucinic. Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina and Nikola Drincic of Spartak Moscow are currently sidelined with injuries, and the likes of Milorad Pekovic of Greuther Furth and Milan Jovanovic from Spartak Nalchik are ready to rise to the challenge of emulating their predecessors. These include such illustrious names as Branko Brnovic, Predrag Mijatovic, Ljubomir Radanovic, Branko Radovic and the aforementioned Savicevic.
"We were new to international football and didn’t have much experience. We had to come of age as a team while playing big matches at the same time," said Vucinic of his country’s short history, before letting future opponents know that they will be in for a battle. “Now everyone can see that we are a team that can play football, and we’re starting to play to our strengths." Exactly how far they have come will be seen when they take on Switzerland and England in October, and these two tests appear to be coming at just the right time.