Following Serbia’s failure to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008, Radomir Antic stepped up to the Beli Orlovi helm in August last year. The 60-year-old’s previous coaching positions have included spells in charge of Spanish giants Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
However, the ex-pro from Zitiste in the former Yugoslavia had no experience of coaching a national team up to that point. The Serbian association still had no hesitation in handing the reins to Antic, who has been busily repaying the faith placed in him ever since.
The Serbs have won eight of their 11 matches since the veteran supremo took over and have risen from 33rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 20th. In European qualifying Group 7 for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Serbia extended their lead over France at the top of the section to five points with a 1-0 victory over Austria at the weekend.
Before leading his men to the Faroes on Wednesday, Antic spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his targets, his players and their group opponents.
FIFA.com: Six matches into qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, Serbia lead European Group 7 from France and Lithuania. You must be happy with the way it’s gone so far?
Radomir Antic: I’m more than happy, and not just because of the results. We’ve created a really positive atmosphere and our confidence is high. We’ve genuinely turned into a big family, and that’s definitely the biggest success. We want to continue pursuing this path in every aspect of the work we do.
On Wednesday, you and your team travel to face the Faroe Islands, who have only picked up a single point so far. You’d expect to collect all three points, wouldn’t you?
The only thing that’s certain is that it won’t be easy. They have a new head coach and they’ll be totally fired up. The Faroes have taken a big step in the right direction, and we only scored twice when we met them at home. Our next two home games, against France and Romania, are like finals on the road to South Africa. We’re only a few steps away from realising our biggest dream of being part of the World Cup.
Despite a patchy campaign so far, the French rate as Serbia’s most dangerous rivals for a berth at the finals. How would you assess them?
I have enormous respect for the French. I only have good things to say about the team. But we’ve taken the dominant role in our group over the last few months, and I believe in my players. They know very well how to defend our position at the top of the group.
Which of your group opponents have surprised you most?
To be honest with you, you can’t say there have been any surprises. I suppose you could single out Lithuania. They were well-organised, played good football and were very convincing, so they perhaps deserve to be mentioned as a positive surprise.
Many commentators have been impressed by the emergence of your defender Branislav Ivanovic, who is Serbia’s top scorer in qualifying with three goals. How important is he to the team?
It’s not just that he scores goals. He has real character, and when he goes out and plays it’s just brilliant. He’s very important to us, although he’s not had enough playing time for Chelsea. But he’s mentally strong and headed in the right direction.
Who would you rate as your key players?
I regard football as a game played by a collective. The group dynamic brings the best out of each individual. All our players have class and quality, and without exception, they contribute it to the team.
Before stepping up to the Serbia job, you spent almost four years away from coaching. Why was that?
I’m very much a family man. I love my sport, but I enjoy life too. The decisions I’ve taken have always shown my deep attachment to football, and my willingness to consider offers and opportunities wherever they come up in the world. But I think someone who’s always been a hard worker has also earned the right to take it a little easier from time to time.
You’d only coached at club level before your current job. How difficult was the switch from working with your players on a daily basis to taking over a national set-up?
You can’t compare the two. I’ve never had this feeling before, but I reckon I’ve arrived as a coach now. I’ve taken on the challenge with relish and real energy.
If you believe in statistical patterns, there’s no way Serbia can qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Since 1974, the former Yugoslavia and Serbia have never featured at the global tournament twice in a row, and Serbia took part in 2006. What do you make of that?
Numbers can’t stop us achieving our targets. I’m an ambitious person, and I’ve never taken much notice of facts and figures from the past. And to be honest, I have much bigger targets than simply qualifying for the World Cup.