For decades, Yugoslavia produced some of the most admired teams and individual players in world football. Reaching eight FIFA World Cups™ and claiming gold at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament in 1960 and 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship was no mean feat, yet the Plavi's name became as synonymous with style and skill as it did success.
Players such as Robert Prosinecki and Dragan Stojkovic made sure of that and yet, when the 1990s Balkans Wars led to the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation, it was thought that a dilution of the region's reputation was all but inevitable. The great Yugoslavia teams had, after all, tended to be a diverse bunch, with their formidable 1990 FIFA World Cup squad a prime example. United under the same flag in Italy had been Croatians such as Prosinecki and Davor Suker, a Macedonian contingent that included Darko Pancev, Montenegrins Predrag Mijatovic and Dejan Savicevic, as well as Stojkovic, the team's Serbian No10.
Together, they were a formidable force. Apart, their prospects looked considerably less promising. Yet in the immediate aftermath of Yugoslavia's dissolution, hope emerged, most notably in a Croatia side that quickly established its credentials by reaching the semi-finals of France 1998. The time since has seen the Croatians continue to throw the gauntlet down and, already, the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa qualifying campaign has witnessed Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina respond in spectacular fashion.
Serbia: Leading from the front
As recently as eight months ago, Serbian football was in the doldrums. Javier Clemente had failed to take the Beli Orlovi (White Eagles) to UEFA EURO 2008, and the eight-game reign of his successor, Miroslav Djukic, had passed without a single victory.
Today, the same side that seemed incapable of winning under Djukic now sit proudly atop their South Africa 2010 qualifying section, two points clear of France, five ahead of Austria and eight better off than Romania. It has been a spectacular transformation, and one widely attributed to the appointment in August of Radomir Antic, a vastly experienced coach who spent 16 years coaching some of Spain's most famous clubs.
I want not only to qualify, but to build a team with a winners' mentality able to impose their authority on the pitch.
The 60-year-old has seen enough in his long and distinguished career to know that football can be a fickle mistress, but after watching his side win 3-2 away to Romania in their most recent qualifier, even he allowed himself to dream. "If we win our next two games at home to Austria and away to the Faroe Islands, we will have one foot in South Africa," he said. "But I want not only to qualify, but to build a team with a winners' mentality able to impose their authority on the pitch."
Many of the players currently excelling on FIFA World Cup duty first came to prominence when Serbia reached the final of the 2007 UEFA European U-21 Championship, heralding the arrival of an outstanding new generation. Nemanja Vidic, the rock on which this new-look Serbian side has been built, certainly had no hesitation in identifying "youth" as the team's greatest strength in a recent interview with FIFA.com.
"This generation can play together for at least the next five years and that will be very important," said the Manchester United centre-half. "We have the qualities to play nice, attractive, offensive football and I hope the public will see that in South Africa."
Bosnia-Herzegovina: Causing a stir
When Bosnia-Herzegovina were drawn in the same qualifying section as Spain, Belgium and Turkey, many concluded that their dreams of reaching South Africa 2010 had effectively ended before they had even begun. As it is, in a group dominated, as expected, by the European champions, this fledgling football nation are defying the odds by leading the race for a play-off spot.
Home-and-away wins over Belgium in their recent preliminary double-header have left Miroslav Blazevic's side four points clear of Turkey and five ahead of the Belgians in the race for second place, and the celebrations that followed in Sarajevo would have suggested the FIFA World Cup itself had been won. Almost overnight, Edin Dzeko - whose three goals against Belgium took his tally to seven from six qualifiers - has emerged as a national hero.
The success of a team that includes Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims has also served as a powerful unifying force in an ethnically divided country, something Blazevic - the man who led Croatia to third place at France 1998 - considers among his most notable achievements.
"I was more proud than ever to hear the fans cheer our Serb goalkeeper Nemanja Supic and myself in one voice," he said last week. "Few teams can beat Belgium twice in four days, and that shows the team chemistry is fantastic. The most important thing is that we don't let this opportunity slip."