Following the secession of Montenegro in 2006, Beijing 2008 will be Serbia's first appearance at the Olympic Football Tournament as an independent state with a new name. The Serbs will be determined to avoid a repeat of the debacle at the 2004 Athens games, when as Serbia and Montenegro they lost all three Group C matches, scoring just three goals and conceding no fewer than 14. They have much fonder memories of the 1984 tournament in Los Angeles, where a Yugoslavia team featuring Dragan Stojkovic, Mitar Mrkela and a sizeable contingent of fellow Serbia-born stars won the bronze medal.
Many observers expect great things from the current Serb team, who have emerged as a real surprise package. In advance of the UEFA U-21 European Championship, hardly anyone backed them to claim one of the four European tickets to the 2008 Beijing games. Indeed, it took a minor miracle for the East Europeans even to reach the finals. The Serbs were all but out of contention after a 3-0 home defeat to Sweden in a qualifying play-off, but ran up a sensational 5-0 win in the away leg. They the hit the ground running at the finals, opening their campaign with a 1-0 win over five-times champions Italy. A victory by the same score over the Czech Republic in their second Group B fixture guaranteed a place at the Beijing games. A 2-0 success against Belgium in the semi-finals was followed by a disappointing 4-1 loss to hosts the Netherlands in the final, but the footballing world had long since marked the Serbs down as real contenders.
"There's a terrific atmosphere among the players and a real sense of unity after what we've achieved. They're ready to face all the challenges which lie ahead. The players have earned themselves a lot of attention and a great deal of respect," then coach Miroslav Djukic said after his side sealed a place in Beijing. Slobodan Krcmarevic has subsequently taken over the task of bringing on an exceptionally promising generation. The Serbs are certainly not to be underestimated once the action starts in China.
Facts and figures
Aleksandar Kolarov (defence), Stefan Babovic (midfield), Zoran Tosic (forward)
Serbia scored four of their five goals at the UEFA U-21 European Championship in the Netherlands after the 62nd minute. Krcmarevic's men are patently not lacking in stamina or patience.
The numbers game
0: the number of times Serbia have appeared at the Olympic Football Tournament as an independent association, which first came into being in 2006.