In Slavic mythology, the falcon is a spirit or being of sun and light, a deadly raptor soaring majestically over the earth before swooping at lightning speed on its unsuspecting prey.
The Montenegro national team, nicknamed Hrabri Sokolovi or the Brave Falcons, certainly share a few things in common with this predator of the skies, but the footballers differ from the beast of legend and lore in one crucial area: far from swooping to earth, they are engaged in a rapid and steep ascent.
A glance at Group G in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying says it all. First place belongs to established footballing power England, but Montenegro, the newest member of both FIFA and UEFA, lie second – and only on goal difference.
Praise from Capello and Matthaus
"They’re a wonderful team, a very compact unit who work and run hard,” enthused England manager Fabio Capello back in October last year, after his Three Lions side were held to a goalless draw at Wembley by the rank outsiders.
The Falcons’ excellent performance so far is all the more remarkable when the remaining teams in the group are taken into consideration: nine-time FIFA World Cup™ participants Switzerland, Bulgaria, who finished fourth at USA 1994, and Wales.
Bulgaria boss Lothar Matthaus also acknowledges the strengths of the Montenegrins. "They have very good footballers in their ranks. They’re disciplined in defence and have lots of individual class up front,” Germany’s most-capped player recently told FIFA.com.
Last Friday, the side in second entertained the Bulgarians in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital. Despite conceding their first goal of the qualifying campaign, the Falcons earned a 1-1 draw which could yet prove crucial when the places in Poland and Ukraine are finally handed out.
Best defence in qualifying
A vital figure in the best defence of all 51 nations competing for places at the 2012 finals is Milorad Pekovic. The defensive midfielder, who plays his club football in Germany, pulls the strings in the holding role while always seeing the bigger picture. "We’re not up there at the top by accident. We have plenty of quality and we deserve to be second,” he exclusively told FIFA.com, reviewing a record to date of three wins and two draws.
Over the last few months, the combination of collective effort and individual class has ensured that fans and football enthusiasts now know exactly where to find the young nation of 600,000 on the game’s world map. "We live from our team spirit. The players spend a lot of time together, away from the pitch too. That binds us closer together,” commented Pekovic, currently plying his trade for Greuther Furth in Bundesliga 2.
Important though this team ethos is, Montenegro possess a deadly weapon is Mirko Vucinic. The Roma striker has scored two of his team’s four qualifying goals, and personally secured six points with goals against Wales and the Swiss. "He’s absolutely exceptional, and he has quality like I’ve never seen before,” Pekovic declared.
Recovery from setback
After a disappointing 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign, with just one win in ten matches, Montenegro’s star has been perpetually on the rise. Pekovic and Co were last beaten more than a year ago, a 2-1 reverse away to Norway.
The impressive run is reflected in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, in which coach Zlatko Kranjcar’s side have jumped 49 places since April 2010 and now lie 24th, Montenegro’s best placing since joining FIFA in June 2007. The established neighbours from Croatia (11th place), Serbia (16th) and Slovenia (17th) are moving well within range.
The success is not only based on prodigious effort invested by the team built around captain and leading scorer Vucinic, but also meticulous hard work from the local association (FSCG), which has left no stone unturned in the quest to establish first-class structures for the country.
"The FSCG has invested lots of money, time and committed effort. We’re a small country with lots of talent and potential. Thanks to our good youth development work, and by carefully building up the necessary infrastructure, we have a realistic chance of rising even higher in the future,” said Pekovic, who has 24 caps to date.
Targeting the EURO
The Falcons are convinced they have by no means exhausted the potential available to them, and the current team is brimming with confidence. However, for all the desire to catch up with their longer-established neighbours, the priority lies elsewhere for now. Once the new season gets underway, Kranjcar and his players aim to build on their promising position and collect more vital qualifying points at home to Wales and England and away to the Swiss.
"There’s unbelievable euphoria in the country at the moment. We’re looking at no-one but ourselves right now, and we intend to take our chance of a ticket to the EURO. It would be a dream come true,” declared Pekovic, eyeing the decisive matches in September and October with the steely gaze and sharp focus you would naturally expect from a falcon.