With their sights set high, and in the knowledge that many experts rate them dark horses for a medal, a new and hugely promising Serbian generation is brimming with confidence as they travel to Beijing looking to cause a stir and perhaps even stun the footballing world by claiming the ultimate prize.
Serbia travel to the Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing as UEFA European U-21 Championship runners-up. The east Europeans fell 4-1 to the seemingly invincible Netherlands in last year’s continental final, but a spot at the Olympics went a long way towards making up for the bitter defeat at the hands of the host nation. "After what happened, there’s tremendous unity and a fantastic atmosphere in the dressing room. They’re ready for the most demanding challenges. The players have earned themselves a great deal of respect and attention," then coach Miroslav Djukic said.
Now with Slobodan Krcmarevic at the helm, the Serbs are determined to build on their fine showing in the Netherlands when they arrive in China, where most experts rate them a decent prospect for a medal. They also have a blot on their copybook to erase, as they will be desperately keen to avoid a repeat of a miserable 2004 tournament in Athens, where the team (then still joined with Montenegro) left for home after three group stage defeats with just three goals for and a demoralising 14 against. The latest youthful crop, however, appears cut from a very different cloth.
The form of the three best players could well prove the decisive factor. Defender Aleksandar Kolarov, midfield star Stefan Babovic and striker Zoran Tosic form the backbone of the Serbian line-up.
Kolarov, on the books of UEFA Champions League hopefuls Lazio, is a defender who likes to score goals. The 22-year-old joins in his side’s attacking moves at every possible opportunity, claiming an impressive ten goals in 63 matches for Serbian cracks OFK Belgrade In 2006.
Attacking midfielder Babovic switched to French top flight outfit Nantes at the start of the year after making his debut for Serbia in November 2007. A fine passer, he is the pivot of his side’s attacking efforts.
Striker Tosic, a supremely talented 21-year-old, opted against a move to a posse of top clubs clamouring for his signature and joined Partizan Belgrade in July 2007. The left-footed player is equally at home on the left flank and at centre-forward, handing coach Krcmarevic the bonus of tactical flexibility.
Breakthrough on the world stage?
An exciting crop of talented youngsters will support the three key figures. No fewer than four Serbia players made it into the UEFA European U-21 Championship all-star team. Kolarov was one of their number, along with keeper Damir Kahriman, midfielder Bosko Jankovic and Branislav Ivanovic, for whom Chelsea paid 12.2m in January 2008.
Players from the former Yugoslavia and more recently Serbia have always been regarded as technically polished, boasting excellent dribbling skills and never afraid to try their luck in one-against-one situations. That made them flexible and hard to predict, although recent years have witnessed a distinct change in the balance of their play, with a new emphasis on counter-attacking tactics off a stronger defensive platform. Serbia’s opponents at the Olympics can expect to meet a side that is hard to break down and liable to strike from deep at lightning speed, looking to feed the likes of Hertha Berlin sharp-shooter Marko Pantelic.
The Serbs open their Olympic campaign against Australia on 7 August, before meeting Côte d’Ivoire three days later. Their third and potentially decisive group match is against defending champions and overall favourites Argentina, for whom Barcelona wizard Lionell Messi merely heads a long list of star names.
Should the young Serbs play to their potential in Beijing and succeed in emerging from a tough group, a coup similar to that at the European Championship is well within range.