Vladimir Petrovic has big plans for Serbia. Having played at two FIFA World Cups, an experience he describes as “the most glorious of my life”, the 56-year-old is determined to ensure that his players sample the same ecstasy.
There is, however, a pragmatism that underlies Petrovic’s romantic visions. Having been a coach for over two decades, he has learned one universal truth about life in the dugout: long-term visions must be complemented short-term success.
As such, and despite the fact he took over from Radomir Antic two games into Serbia’s UEFA EURO 2012 preliminary campaign, the former Crvena Zvezda coach knows only too well that the pressure is on. Six Group C qualifiers have yielded two wins, two draws and two defeats, and with Italy seemingly disappearing over the horizon, Serbia find themselves scrapping with Slovenia for a play-off berth.
Consequently, Petrovic’s excitement at being part of the recent Brazil 2014 Preliminary Draw was tempered by a realisation that only tangible improvement will ensure that he remains in charge for that particular campaign.
He told FIFA.com: “I really enjoyed being over for the draw, and the World Cup is a great challenge for everyone. But in a sense it was strange even to be contemplating 2014 when we’re still in the middle of trying to qualify for the EURO. I’m excited about a World Cup in Brazil like everyone else, but the fact is that my destiny, as well as the destiny of most of the head coaches in Europe, will be determined by how successful we are in qualifying for Poland and Ukraine.”
Petrovic, by his own admission, has not enjoyed the most auspicious of starts, losing at home to Estonia in his first match and then watching helplessly as crowd trouble in Genoa forced the cancellation of his second. The subsequent awarding of the win to Italy hardly made his task any easier; nor did more dropped points in Estonia. Nonetheless, Petrovic’s team remain just three points behind Slovenia with a game in hand, and the performance of a new crop of players in their vital 2-1 win over Northern Ireland augurs well for the future.
I always feel that anyone who hasn’t been to a World Cup in their career will always have something missing... Playing for my country at a World Cup was the most glorious moment of my life.
“It’s not been easy so far,” the Serbia coach conceded, “but I am building a team that I think can serve Serbia well for the next four years. We’ve said goodbye to some older players and now we have several younger guys who, if everything goes well, should still be key players for us by the time the next World Cup comes around.
“The average age of our squad is around 26, which I’m happy about, and I expect this squad – with some more young players coming in over time – to stay together for several years. But the most important thing for us all is to qualify. I have my ideas and my plans for the future, but I’m realistic enough to know that if I don’t enjoy some success, I won’t be allowed to see those plans and ideas through. That’s the nature of life as a coach.”
Not that it stops him dreaming. Petrovic, for whom qualifying for EURO 2012 would trigger an automatic contract extension, is already allowing his mind to wander towards Brazil 2014, and replicating an experience he savoured with Yugoslavia in 1974 and 1982.
“For everyone involved in a national team – players, coaches, fans – the World Cup is the ultimate,” he said. “I was fortunate enough during my own playing career to be involved in two of them, and now I want to experience the same as a head coach. If I can do that, I’ll be able to say that I’ve achieved something special.
“I always feel that anyone who hasn’t been to a World Cup in their career will always have something missing, and only people who’ve played – or coached - at a World Cup will understand what I mean there. Playing for my country at a World Cup was the most glorious moment of my life.”
It remains to be seen whether Serbia, who disappointed at South Africa 2010 after an outstanding qualifying campaign, will be back in 2014. The Preliminary Draw left them with an open and evenly-matched section in which all five of their group rivals – Croatia, Belgium, Scotland, Macedonia and Wales – will feel confident of making an impact. It was described at the time by Petrovic as “one of the hardest groups of all”, and the Serbia coach admits that picking a winner at this stage is well nigh impossible.
“Football is changing all the time,” he said. “I always feel that it’s difficult to speak today about who will be the big favourites for 2014, and even who will qualify, because the teams are always changing and developing. What I’m sure about is that every single game we face in this section will be very tough. In the end, one point or one goal could end up being decisive.”
And with such miniscule margins separating success from failure and the spectre of unemployment, it’s no wonder that long-term plans are a luxury that few coaches can afford.