The Montenegro FA officially became a member of FIFA on 31 May 2007, so the qualifying competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was the first contest entered by the newly-formed association. That campaign ended with a fifth placed finish in their group, so the country's recent exceptional performance in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying has to rate as the biggest surprise on the continental footballing stage over the last 18 months.
Montenegro finished second to England in Group G, and now face the Czech Republic in home and away play-offs as they seek to book a place at a major tournament for the first time. Midfield general Milorad Pekovic, on the books at German second division outfit Greuther Furth, reckons he and his men can make life hard for the nation which finished second at EURO 96. “We've proved we have the quality to hold our own against the big footballing nations such as England. Our good results and excellent matches mean we're confident and we believe in ourselves," the seasoned 34-year-old exclusively told FIFA.com.
Underdogs, but hopes are high
Pekovic occupies a key role in the team sent out by boss Branko Brnovic. The man in possession of the number 15 shirt is on the verge of fulfilling a childhood dream. “Ever since I was a kid and started playing at the age of seven, I dreamed of appearing at the Euro or the World Cup just once. And now, at the mature age of 34, that dream could come true. It's an amazing feeling, and it would be the crowning achievement of my career."
However, experienced campaigners Czech Republic stand in the way of the dream being fulfilled. The national teams meet at the senior level for the first time on 11 and 15 November, with the Czechs rated as overwhelming favourites. “But obviously, we're quite happy to be considered underdogs. We know the Czech Republic are very strong, but we’ll do whatever we can to beat them," Pekovic declared.
The man capped 14 times by his country believes there are good reasons to think an upset is on the cards. “I feel it's a slight advantage that we play the second, all-or-nothing decider at home. However, I wouldn't read too much into that. We'll have to give everything in both matches and remain totally focused. If we don't come away from the first game with a result to defend, it'll be even more difficult in the return."
Quality and confidence
Pekovic, who has plied his trade in Germany since 2002, will likely cross swords in midfield with Czech superstar Tomas Rosicky, whose team-mates include the likes of established international figures Petr Cech, Jaroslav Plasil and Milan Baros. As for Montenegro, and leaving aside for a moment star duo Mirko Vucinic of Juventus and Fiorentina's Stevan Jovetic, most of the players are further down the professional pecking order.
You can't compare us with Germany or England. The country has a total population of just 700,000. It's not like we'll make it to every major tournament and reach the later stages.
Pekovic derives his high hopes of booking a place in Poland and Ukraine from two excellent performances against England, and from edging out Switzerland to the play-off place. “Everyone wrote us off beforehand, but we ended up finishing ahead of good countries like Switzerland, Bulgaria and Wales in a difficult group. We got stuck in as a team, and we'll be even stronger as a result."
Entire nation in support
In terms of land mass, Montenegro is approximately the same size as the Falkland Islands or the Bahamas, with a population not far exceeding a modest provincial city. The comparison merely highlights the extraordinary achievement in reaching the play-offs. “You can't compare us with Germany or England. The country has a total population of just 700,000. It's not like we'll make it to every major tournament and reach the later stages," Pekovic acknowledged.
Nevertheless, recent developments in the nation's football have galvanised the already football-mad general public. “You can't really understand the current situation unless you come from my country. The people back home have much bigger problems than winning football matches, but thanks to our success, we've suddenly succeeded in attracting everybody to the stadiums, young and old alike. They're all coming to support us and cheer us on." Even more significantly, Pekovic believes the nation has arrived at a significant juncture in its history: “It's a massive success for the nation as a whole, and I'm obviously bursting with pride at being part of it."
Pekovic has a Serbian Cup winner’s medal from a spell with Partizan Belgrade in 2001, but the player rates the forthcoming play-offs as even more momentous. “Obviously, I've been involved in big and prestigious matches before, but the prize on offer from the next two games is so much more valuable, it makes them the most important matches of my career. My greatest dream could come true." And for a long serving pro, that really would be the crowning glory at the tail-end of a hard-working career.