Fear ran through the veins of Nemanja Vidic. Serbia's pre-eminent icon was on the verge of being cast a villain. The 28-year-old had, with his country a goal up in a match they had to win to stand a realistic chance of reaching the Round of 16, conceded a 60th-minute spot-kick. Living in England, the Manchester United centre-back knew all too well that Germans rarely miss penalties.
Lukas Podolski placed the ball on the spot. His reputation for self-assurance and ability to strike a ball made a balancing of the scores seemingly inevitable. His left boot stroked the ball towards the bottom corner of the Serbian goal. Vladimir Stojkovic, meantime, catapulted himself to his left and, at full stretch, repelled the ball. Podolski and his compatriots were bewildered. So, too, were football fans worldwide when the final whistle confirmed Serbia as 1-0 winners, thanks also to Milan Jovanovic’s 38th-minute goal against the ten men of Germany.
"I was so relieved," Vidic told FIFA minutes after leaving the Port Elizabeth Stadium pitch on the winning side. "It was my mistake. I just got disorientated and handled the ball. Fortunately 'Stojk' produced a fantastic save. I said to him afterwards, 'I owe you a gift. What do you want?' But thinking about it now, I should be asking him for a gift. Look at the attention he's getting – he’s a hero. I gave him that opportunity to become a hero!"
And that the 26-year-old Wigan Athletic keeper most certainly is – both among the Serbian fans, who bellowed out his name for the remaining half-hour, and his squad-mates. "Everyone’s been hugging him in the dressing room," Neven Subotic said. "For me he had a great game anyway, he made some important saves. But the penalty was just a great moment. It happened against Ghana, we gave away a needless penalty and they beat us. We couldn't believe it was going to happen again. Fortunately he made a wonderful save."
So, was there a secret to Stojkovic's success? "No, no," the man himself admitted. "I didn’t know which way he was going to go. I just took a guess and luckily I went the right way. I'm very, very pleased. We've beaten a top side but now we've got to focus on another tough game and reaching the last 16." The penalty-saving of Jan Tomaszewski, Harald Schumacher, Sergio Goycochea and Taffarel proved paramount to Poland, West Germany, Argentina and Brazil achieving podium finishes at past FIFA World Cups.
Serbia's ambitions may be a notch lower this year, but if they do make the last 16 - and create a bit of history in the process – that save at Port Elizabeth Stadium will be revered for a long time to come. Maybe then Vidic can justify picking himself out an extravagant present.