Serbia captain Dejan Stankovic has paid a warm tribute to coach Radomir Antic for his role in transforming the team’s fortunes. The former Real Madrid and Barcelona coach took over in 2008 following a dispiriting failure in qualifying for the UEFA European Championship and, according to Stankovic, his impact was instant.
Antic’s experience and self-assurance certainly translated into vastly improved performances from Serbia’s players during the preliminaries for South Africa 2010, and Stankovic attributes this turnaround to being liberated from pressure.
“Antic became an example for the national team at a very delicate moment,” recalled the Inter Milan midfielder. “The association decided to bring in a really experienced coach, someone who immediately presented his ideas and told us what he wanted and what he didn't want. Qualifying was really good, there were moments when things weren't going to plan, but it was his experience that he succeeded in transferring to us. It was that ability to settle us down well, and endure the pressure when things were not so good, that made the difference. He came in and, the way I see it, took a lot of pressure off the players.
“He said that he guaranteed everything, he was responsible for everything - all we had to do was to transfer his ideas on to the field. That was the way it proved, and it made it so much easier for me to focus on the game itself. Although he hadn't led a national team before and this is his first World Cup as a coach, to be honest I don't see any confusion; I see him as self-assured. He tries to put aside all those little things that can bother you during a World Cup, so from day one I’ve had a correct, professional relationship, as well as friendly relationship, with him. I’m probably the oldest team member here, if not by age, then by the years of playing, and that connection between me, the coach and my team mates is excellent.”
As he readily acknowledges, Stankovic has reached the veteran stage in his distinguished career, and the 31-year-old’s previous FIFA World Cup experience – he also competed at France 1998 and Germany 2006 – is sure to be vital to the Serbian cause. It also leaves him well placed to assess the current Beli Orlovi side’s potential, and Stankovic clearly likes what he sees in Serbia’s class of 2010.
As he told FIFA: “We have been together for 20 months, this team, and luckily it has remained mostly the same. I am sure of this squad. Firstly, they’re amazing guys; secondly, they are really, really good players; and thirdly, we have scored a lot of goals, so there’s no reason to change anything.”
Confident in his team-mates, Stankovic’s belief that Serbia are poised to impress has not been dented by some indifferent recent friendly performances. A shock defeat to New Zealand caused consternation among their supporters, and those concerns were merely exacerbated when Antic’s side followed that up with a drab goalless draw against Poland. Their most recent win hinted at better, however, with the Serbians twice coming from behind to beat Cameroon 4-3 in a match described by their captain as “beautiful”.
He said: “I'm sorry we lost the match against New Zealand, but after great [training] work in Austria, our legs were heavy and we were tired. After that came Poland, which was a little better, but maybe we didn’t look so great on the pitch. And last of all Cameroon, which I think was a beautiful game to watch - it was the cherry on the cake.”