With the current FIFA World Cup™ holders, Italy, set to come up against one of the youngest FIFA member associations, Montenegro, many would automatically assign the world champions the tag of clear favourites. However, you can be sure that the Azzurri will travel to Podgorica for their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa qualifier on Saturday with a more than healthy amount of respect for their hosts.
Draws against Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland and a narrow 2-1 defeat at the hands of Italy have caused many to sit up and take notice of the side taking part in their first ever FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. Indeed, such has been the Montenegrins' progression that striker Dragan Bogavac is still frustrated by his side's defeat in Lecce last October: "We were definitely worth a point in Italy. We played really well over there but unfortunately we came away with nothing," he told FIFA.com.
Ahead of Germany 2006, the team now nicknamed the Brave Falcons entered qualifying as a combined national team along with Serbia. Serbia-Montenegro topped their group ahead of the likes of Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgium with six wins and four draws to take their place in Germany - their first ever appearance at the showpiece finals. Once there, they bowed out after first-round defeats by the Netherlands, Argentina and Côte d'Ivoire.
An independent FIFA member association since 2007, Montenegro have managed to climb into 112th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, although Bogavac still believes there is a long way to go: "We are improving all the time, but we still have a lot to learn."
I am convinced that there is still a lot of progress to be made and we certainly have more than enough talent to do so.
With two points from three games, Zoran Filipovic's charges currently occupy fourth place in their European Zone qualifying group for South Africa 2010 behind Italy, the Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria. Only a win against the group leaders will do if they are to maintain a realistic chance of qualification, but the Mainz forward knows picking up a positive result would be no mean feat: "It's going to be difficult. At the end of the day we are taking on the world champions."
Perhaps fittingly, the Montenegrin strike duo of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic both ply their trade in Serie A, with the latter the undoubted star of the team. The 25-year-old has been crowned Montenegrin Player of the Year for the past three seasons and forms a lethal forward line at the capital club alongside Italy's Francesco Totti.
Montenegro's first ever competitive match took place in March 2007, almost exactly two years ago, with Vucinic making history by scoring his country's first ever international goal from the spot in a 2-1 victory over Hungary. Other players such as Branko Boskovic of Rapid Vienna and Inter Milan wonder kid Stefan Nenadovic bring further international experience to a squad clearly fired up for the showdown with Marcello Lippi's team. "I've been looking forward to the match against Italy for months," said former Paris Saint-Germain striker Boskovic.
Another man committed to promoting Montenegrin football in the future is former AC Milan idol and current Montenegro Football Association President Dejan Savicevic. "We have four or five superb footballers, but we seem to have a void in defensive midfield," said Il Genio on the current squad situation. "We have reached a decent level of football at domestic level now but I am convinced that there is still a lot of progress to be made and we certainly have more than enough talent to do so," added a player who won the European Cup both with Milan and Crvena Zvezda.
His is a view also shared by Bogavac, who concluded by revealing just how much qualification for South Africa 2010 would mean to his homeland: "It would be incredible for the people of Montenegro. They love football more than any other sport."