Petkovic laments lack of quality
"We simply don't have enough quality players." This was the lament of the outgoing Serbia and Montenegro coach Ilija Petkovic as he reflected on his team's failure at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in a farewell press conference in Belgrade on 27 June.
Petkovic is leaving his post after reaching the end of his contract and for all the progress made by Serbia and Montenegro during his reign - culminating in qualification for a first major tournament in six years - the abiding memory will be of the team's dismal campaign in Germany this month.
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Heroes to zeros
For those Plavi fans who had marvelled at their team's excellence in qualifying for Germany 2006, it must have seemed like a bad dream. The team that only conceded one goal in qualifying, to finish ahead of Spain, somehow ended up on the receiving end of ten in as many days in Germany.
After starting with a narrow 1-0 loss to the Netherlands, the Plavi (or Blues) fell apart in a 6-0 dismantling by Argentina. Even their attempt at restoring pride against Côte D'Ivoire ended in tears as they surrendered a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 - and lost Mladen Krstajic to a broken arm.
With hindsight, it seems Serbia and Montenegro's campaign seemed to go wrong from the moment young striker Mirko Vucinic withdrew from the squad and was replaced by the coach's son, Dusan Petkovic. In response to widespread criticism of his father's decision, Petkovic Jr subsequently opted to remain at home, leaving the squad a man short before they had even landed in Germany.
That can hardly have helped preparations but a more significant setback was the loss of Nemanja Vidic from the heart of the defence. The Manchester United defender, suspended for the first match, did not see a single minute's action after damaging knee ligaments in training.
Yet there was more to the Plavi's failure to perform than this. In truth the entire team looked out of sorts; less determined than the Netherlands, less talented than Argentina and less committed than Côte d'Ivoire.
Despite being drawn in a difficult group, Petkovic's men were at least expected to make a fight of reaching the second round following their fine performances in the preliminaries. They appeared to have in place a solid, well-organised team, and this only made the subsequent collapse all the more galling for their fans.
Finding cause for optimism is not an easy task at first glance. It was certainly beyond Petkovic when he spoke at his farewell press conference. "I spent so many days and nights finding players who could be better than Holland and Argentina," he reflected. "I prepared tactics, I thought about everything. I changed what I could change. But the truth is on the pitch and they were better than us. We simply don't have enough quality players. I'm sorry but that's true if you want to win, first of all you have to have good players."
Reasons to be cheerful
The picture is not entirely bleak, of course, and several players did their reputations no harm. One bright spot was the showing of Olympiacos playmaker Predrag Djordjevic. He performed consistently well in all three games, showing clarity of thought, desire and inventiveness. Young target man Nikola Zigic can also be pleased with the way he performed. Not only did he score the opening goal against Côte d'Ivoire, but he was also one of the few Serbia and Montenegro players to show the hunger needed to succeed at this level.
Midfielder Ognjen Koroman also showed glimpses of his worth. He changed the face of his team after his introduction against the Netherlands and produced a lively performance in the opening exchanges with Argentina, before receiving a yellow card and subsequent suspension from the final match.
This was Serbia and Montenegro's first and last FIFA World Cup. The outcome of the referendum held in Montenegro just before the tournament means that Serbia and Montenegro will in future compete as separate teams and begin qualification for UEFA EURO 2008 as detached entities, before turning their attention to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
There is a ray of hope on the horizon however, in the success of the Serbia and Montenegro team in reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Under-21 Championship in Portugal. They only missed out on the final after losing a penalty shoot-out to Ukraine and a number of players from that team should soon graduate to the senior squad.
The young central defenders Milan Stepanov and Milan Bisevac are likely to follow in the footsteps of Dusan Basta, Vladimir Stojkovic and the unlucky Vucinic in receiving promotion to their senior side. Despite Petkovic's complaint about a lack of quality players, this group of promising youngsters should allow whoever assumes the reins as Serbia coach to look to the future with at least some optimism when, as is expected, an appointment is made next month.