Serbia coach Veljko Paunovic is one of the game’s more supportive coaches. Youthful himself, at just 37, he is always there for his young players, giving them talks on tactics and even chatting to them online about ideas and matches past and future.
As soon as the whistle sounds at the start of a game, however, he takes a discreet step backwards and gives his charges all the space they need to express themselves. On occasion, he rises from his seat to give out an instruction or two or issue a final few pointers to a substitute waiting to come on. Before long, though, he turns and heads back to the dugout.
Such an approach does not reflect a lack of interest. Anything but. As he has shown throughout the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, the Serbia boss is always around, yet rarely in the spotlight.
“What I try to do with the boys is give them moral values and the tools they need to play good football,” he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I want them to make their own decisions on the pitch and to put everything they learn in training into practice.”
Paunovic’s brief also covers his squad’s off-field education: “Over these last three years I’ve tried to pass on everything I know to them, not just about how to be good footballers but to be good people too, so that they can make the most of their potential and so they can see how the two things go hand in hand.”
There is one compelling motivating factor for his dual-faceted approach to educating his players: his own experiences in a side that failed to achieve glory with the now-defunct Yugoslavia. “My generation lacked a good guide and a solid project,” explained the 37-year-old. “The situation was difficult in my country at the time. There was a war going on and a lot of political and social problems.
“A lot of those problems were resolved and the war came to an end, which has created a good atmosphere in which new leaders and projects can emerge and creativity can take root. That’s where I fit in.”
As a leader and coach, Paunovic is trying to achieve on the touchline what eluded him during his playing days. “We’ve gained a lot of experience playing in different countries and now we’re passing that on with the support of the national association,” said the former midfielder, who spent virtually his entire career in Spain, playing for the likes of Atletico Madrid, Mallorca and Getafe.
“A new generation of coaches and players are coming through. This is a new era in Serbian football, which is resurgent. We’ve shown here that we can contend again.”
We always dreamed of a final against Brazil. They’re a fantastic team.
The Orlici arrived in New Zealand with designs on going one better than they managed at the 2014 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, when they were knocked out in the semi-finals and given a painful lesson to learn. Showing a lot of grit and determination, the Serbians have achieved what they set out to do, advancing to Saturday’s final, where they will face Brazil.
“This tournament doesn’t give you much opportunity to sit and think about the past. The motivation of playing the next game is what keeps you going. Though we’ve had three very dramatic and demanding ties, the boys are getting energy and drive from the ultimate goal, which is the World Cup final.”
As at any World Cup, some players take more of the limelight than others, though the secret to Serbia’s success is their ability to work as a team, a team in which the defenders are the first to attack and the attackers are the first to defend.
Revealing what makes his side tick, Paunovic said: “We have a fundamental idea that we stick to: every individual has to support the team and give it all they have, which is how they excel on an individual level. The only way a player can show all their individual talent is by having a good connection with the rest of the team.”
Made to work hard by Mali in the semis, the Serbians needed an extra-time goal to reach the final, a game for which Paunovic will have plenty of sound advice to draw on: “Radamir Antic and Bora Milutinovic always keep an eye out. They tell me things that they’ve seen and they help me to do my job better.
“My biggest influence, though is my father Blagoje Paunovic, who was a great player and a great coach. Unfortunately, he passed away six months ago, and I miss him a lot. His advice and presence are important to me right now.”
Five-time champions Brazil stand between Serbia and their first world title, a potential achievement that has been three years in the planning and in which the ambitious Paunovic has invested a lot of time and energy. “We always dreamed of a final against Brazil,” he explained. “They’re a fantastic team who won their semi-final in style. It’s going to be a great match against a great rival.”
Assessing Serbia’s chances of success against the South Americans, Paunovic signed off by saying: “It would be wonderful to make history. We’ve already achieved an awful lot and we’re not going to starting heaping pressure on the players now. I just want them to go out and play and to have fun.
“This is a wonderful experience. They have to stay true to our style and our values. If we do that, things will work out right for us.”