Serbia have just made history at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, winning their first title in the age category since the country’s independence, an achievement secured with a thrilling 2-1 extra-time defeat of Brazil in last Saturday’s final.
As goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic later told FIFA.com, the team took inspiration from the Yugoslavia side that won the same competition 28 years before them, at Chile 1987: “That was an exceptional team, and I think we’ve shown that we are too.”
Rajkovic is not wrong. The team that inspired him and his colleagues featured a galaxy of world-class talent, with the likes of Davor Suker, Predrag Mijatovic, Zvonimir Boban Robert Prosinecki and Robert Jarni lining up alongside each other. The subsequent collapse of Yugoslavia meant that talented crop never had the opportunity to compete together at the FIFA World Cup™, leaving football fans around the globe pondering how far they might have gone had they been given the chance. In an effort to resolve that poser and revive memories of that glorious campaign in Chile, FIFA.com spoke to Mijatovic, a member of that title-winning team, who went on to enjoy a very successful professional career, the pinnacle of which came when he helped Real Madrid land their seventh UEFA Champions League crown.
Just as Serbia have done this time round, Yugoslavia went into the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 as an unknown quantity and were not expected to go far. Yet as Mijatovic explained, it was not long before the rest of the world was sitting up and taking notice of them.
“Our first match was against the hosts, in front of a 65,000 crowd at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago,” recalled the former Yugoslavia star, now 46. “We played really well and we won that game, which made us realise that we could achieve something big. We urged ourselves on and became an even closer unit, and we ended up being a great team that played attacking football, scored a lot of goals and had a lot of fun.”
After seeing off Chile, the young Yugoslavians beat Australia, Togo, Brazil and East Germany before defeating West Germany on penalties in the final. Though Mijatovic missed the tournament showpiece, the events of that golden day are still fresh in his mind:
“It was the first trophy of my career and we all still remember it today," he said. "We were a group of young players who performed brilliantly, and a lot of us went on to become professional footballers with some big clubs around the world."
The sky seemed the limit for Mijatovic and his cohorts, many of whose careers then took off. Yet no sooner had Yugoslavia’s fans begun to dream of what this supremely gifted generation might achieve than war broke out and the country disintegrated. Nothing would ever be the same again.
“We had all we needed to become one of the best teams on the planet, but the war changed everything,” lamented the former Valencia forward. “The teams from the Balkans couldn’t play in competitions for four years. We only played friendlies between 1992 and 1996, and we missed out on a four-year period when we were all on top of our games.”
That sense of frustration reached its peak in 1992, when the Yugoslavians qualified for the UEFA European Championships in Sweden, a tournament in which were expected to impress. Sadly for them and the football world, Mijatovic and Co never got the chance.
“Those were the toughest times,” said Pedja with sadness in his voice. “War had just broken out and that caused a lot of internal problems. There was tension, pressure and we spent our time thinking about things that had nothing to do with football. In the end, we didn’t play in the tournament and we went home, each to our own cities, which ended up being in different countries.”
Mijatovic is in no doubt that a united Yugoslavia could have achieved much in the 1990s and even today: “Look at France 98, where Croatia reached the semi-finals and Yugoslavia the second round. There were some great players then and there are some really good ones around now. If you look at all the Serbians, Montenegrins and Croatians who are playing at the very top level, players like Edin Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic, Miralem Pjanic, Darijo Srna, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, then you can see that it would be a tremendous team.”
Montengero eye the big stages
Born in Montenegro, Mijatovic is now doing his bit to help his country achieve greater success on the international stage, and is happy to look forward rather than back.
“We want to qualify for the EURO finals or the World Cup,” he said, wrapping things up. “The national association is doing a good job now. The president is my good friend Dejan Savicevic and I’m heavily involved with them.
“We meet up a lot and we have a close relationship. We talk about all the things Montenegrin football needs. I’ll always be there to make my contribution because what we all want is to see Montenegro up there at the top.”