Four matches into qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012, underdogs Montenegro have stunned the pundits, delighted their fans and enthralled the footballing world. Coach Zlatko Kranjcar’s side are unbeaten at the top of Group G ahead of England, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Wales and, in their most recent outing, took a deserved point off Fabio Capello's star-studded Three Lions.
Versatile defender Elsad Zverotic has played a central role in the campaign to date, including scoring the only goal of the game in a narrow victory over Bulgaria. The 24-year-old, who holds dual Montenegrin and Swiss nationality, admits that his country’s impressive start to qualifying was not necessarily to be expected.
"It’s definitely a surprise, but we believed in ourselves and turned in some great performances. However, we still never thought we’d be top with so many points. We were thinking we might be in with a chance of second, but as it is, we’ve made a dream start,” the player told FIFA.com.
First Ukraine and Poland, then Brazil?
There is no question that Montenegro have landed in a tough group, with every match a huge challenge, according to Zverotic. "I don’t need to say anything about England. Switzerland have always made it to the major tournaments recently. Bulgaria have a strong national team too, with a new coach in Lothar Matthaus, and the players will want to do well for him. It’s certainly a difficult group."
Despite the size of the task, Elsi remains upbeat about Montenegro’s chances of sealing a berth at next year’s EURO. "We’re top of the group on ten points. We have to believe we can go on and do it from here. It would be a dream come true for our nation. We have the quality to qualify, and we know that. We’re a very young team, and this is only our second qualifying competition. But the position we’re in speaks volumes for our quality."
Montenegro’s maiden shot at qualifying was for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where they faced Italy, the Republic of Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Georgia in Group 8. The campaign finished with a win, six draws, three defeats and fifth spot in the table. And in terms of future qualifying efforts, Zverotic feels it might be a case of success breeding success: "If we make it to the EURO, you could perhaps see us going on from there and qualifying for the World Cup in 2014. Anything is possible."
Swiss' loss is Montenegro's gain
"Switzerland is my home. My friends and my parents are here, and it’s where I grew up. Games against Switzerland are really special to me,“ said Zverotic, who nevertheless opted instead to pull on the Montenegro jersey.
"At the time when Montenegro gained independence from Serbia, I still didn’t have a Swiss passport," he explained. "I received a call asking if I’d play for Montenegro U-21s. I didn’t hear anything from the Swiss for two years, until I obtained a passport. We did talk once after that, but I told them I’d already decided to play for Montenegro."
However, he struggled a little when asked to define his role within the national set-up. "How should I answer that? I don’t really regard myself as a big personality in the dressing room, as I’m not really that old," he said with a grin. "But I’ve definitely taken a step forward. I certainly look at myself in a positive light."
Aiming high with Lucerne and Montenegro
Zverotic and his club Lucerne currently lie third in the Axpo Super League on 37 points, ten behind leaders Basel, but only three adrift of second-placed Zurich. "Basel and Zurich are really good sides and add a lot of quality to the league. Young Boys will soon be there or thereabouts, and Sion are good enough to mix it at the top.
"It’s a hard and very long season. But anything can happen in football. Why shouldn’t we finish first?” said Zverotic, who has lined up a switch to Young Boys Berne for 2011/12. "My goal for the second half of this season is to do as well as possible with Lucerne, and we’ll see where that gets us at the end.“
And what would constitute a dream 2011 for the 24-year-old? "I’d say winning the Swiss league and earning a place at the EURO (with Montenegro)." And who is to say that will not come true because, as Zverotic himself says, anything is possible in football.