Anyone walking into the Serbia dressing room in the catacombs of Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium on Saturday evening would have been surrounded by happy faces, eyes shining with pride and people embracing each other in a display of pure joy. Coach Veljko Paunovic’s side had just won the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015 title after midfield gem Nemanja Maksimovic’s 118th-minute strike fired his homeland to a 2-1 extra-time win over Brazil.
For the team from south-east Europe, winning the title meant more than just lifting the coveted trophy. It was also the first time the still-young nation of Serbia had taken part in this competition as an independent country, only to become champions on their debut. The achievement echoes that of the former Yugoslavia at Chile 1987, when a team led by players such as Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki, Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker claimed youth football’s most prestigious crown.
The fact that Paunovic’s charges are now following in the footsteps of their idols is just one of the reasons why the evening was such an emotional one for the young Serbians. They can now look forward to a bright future after writing footballing history.
Among those they have to thank is a young man who became a hugely reassuring presence over the course of the tournament, particularly during the dramatic final encounter. Goalkeeper and captain Predrag Rajkovic denied Brazil’s most talented youngsters time and time again with some impressive saves. He conceded just four times in seven matches and emerged as the tournament’s best goalkeeper. As such, the Crvena Zvezda shot-stopper was deservedly rewarded for his efforts with the adidas Golden Glove.
Amid delirious celebrations, Serbia’s remarkable custodian took a few minutes out to give FIFA.com an exclusive interview after the trophy presentation in Auckland.
Predrag, congratulations on winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup. When did you first believe that you could lift the trophy here?
Honestly? I believed it from the very start. I knew we could achieve something great here in New Zealand. It wasn’t a case of realising over the course of the four weeks: ‘Wow, we could become world champions.’ No, I was convinced of it from day one – and never doubted it for a moment.
Can you describe the atmosphere in your dressing room right now?
[laughs] As you can imagine, there’s a real party atmosphere in there. It’s a dream come true for us. We’ll let our hair down a bit now, but the celebrations will only get into full swing once we’re back in Belgrade. This title means so much for our homeland. I have to say that it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that we’re now world champions. We have no idea what to expect when we get home, but it’ll certainly be something big!
What is the secret of Serbia’s success?
It’s very simple: we’re one team with one heart! That’s been our motto from the start, and it hasn’t been just talk here in New Zealand – we’ve actually lived it, and I think that was evident on the pitch too.
We’ll never forget the time we spent here.
It was said that your squad watched videos of the highlights of Yugoslavia’s U-20 world champions from 1987 before the tournament began. Back then Davor Suker, Predrag Mijatovic and Zvonimir Boban said that they were close friends and that everything is possible when you have that kind of relationship with your team-mates. Do you agree with that, and did this idea also form part of your team’s approach?
That’s definitely been the case! That idea has been very important to us here in New Zealand. The 1987 side were exceptional, and I think we’ve now proved that we’re just as extraordinary. I just want to say a huge thank you to all of my team-mates for everything we’ve achieved together here. I want to thank each and every one of them with all my heart. Together we were strong!
What do you think made the difference for your side today in a final that could scarcely have been more exciting?
I honestly think it helped that we had to go through at least extra time in every knockout match, so we learned how to deal with the pressure that came with that situation. Then, of course, there was our amazing team spirit, which steered us to the title in the final today against an incredibly strong Brazilian side.
You not only became world champion today but also received the adidas Golden Glove at this final for being the best goalkeeper at the tournament. What does this individual award mean to you?
I’ll happily admit that it means a huge amount to me. All the same, I think it’s incredibly important to stress that the award really belongs to the whole team, for the simple reason that I’d never have won this title without them.
Do you have a role model?
Yes. Initially, when I was still small, Iker Casillas was my idol, but since then lots of people have said that I’m similar to Manuel Neuer [laughs].
How have you found the experience of being in New Zealand over the past four weeks?
It’s been wonderful! We’ve all really enjoyed this adventure and the experiences we’ve had here in New Zealand. We particularly appreciated the amazing welcome we’ve had from people here. Lots of Kiwis have supported us and set the mood, including today at the final where the atmosphere was unbelievable. That’s why I’d like to thank them from the bottom of my heart on behalf of the entire team. We’ll never forget the time we spent here.