Radomir Antic is a master of miracles. On the last day of the 1982/83 season in England, Luton Town needed to beat Manchester City away to remain in the top tier at their opponents’ expense. The Hatters’ status looked precarious when the Yugoslavian defender was summoned from the bench, but the substitute duly fired home the game’s only goal four minutes from time.
Fast-forward to Antic’s managerial career. He led Zaragoza and Oviedo to improbably high finishes in La Liga - fifth in 1988/89 and ninth in 1994/95 respectively - when the majority of pundits had sealed their relegation coffins pre-season. Then, inconceivably, he guided Atletico Madrid to the Spanish top-flight title in 1995/96 after they had survived relegation by a mere point the previous campaign.
Antic, therefore, didn’t flinch when, in August 2008, he grasped what many considered a poisoned chalice: the job of leading Serbia to a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The Balkan nation had performed dismally at Germany 2006, losing all three of their group matches, including a 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Argentina. They had failed to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008. They had failed to win in five matches under previous coach Miroslav Dukic.
The Beli Orlovi (White Eagles), moreover, had been placed in an exacting South Africa 2010 preliminary pool also comprising France, Austria, Romania, an emerging Lithuania and Faroe Islands. Les Bleus had, supposedly, won the race for top spot before a ball was even kicked, leaving their adversaries to battle for second place and, consequently, a slot in the European Zone play-offs.
Nemanja is an indispensable part of our family and we are counting on him. He will play against Algeria and, rest assured, he will be ready for the World Cup.
Antic had other ideas. Not only did his team qualify, but they clinched first place thanks to a 5-0 win over Romania in their penultimate outing. The upshot of Serbia’s surprise qualification, however, was the hike in expectations. And to satisfy this demand in South Africa, the 61-year-old will have to navigate his charges through another tough section: Germany, Ghana and Australia, who all reached the knockout phase four years ago, will provide their Group D opposition.
"All our rivals are top quality teams with a number of outstanding individuals, but I think we have a realistic chance of reaching the last 16 regardless of their strength,” Antic said. “We finished above a top French side to qualify for South Africa, and we’re very confident we can do well. We’ve now got to make sure we make the best use of our preparations.”
Those preparations will involve Serbia running out in Algiers tomorrow evening, in a friendly that will provide the Europeans with multiple benefits: they will be playing on African soil, testing themselves against fellow South Africa 2010 qualifiers and against an African side ahead of their FIFA World Cup opener against Ghana.
It will also mark the return to the national team of Genoa playmaker Bosko Jankovic and Manchester United centre-back Nemanja Vidic, who has been hindered by injuries this past year. “Nemanja is an indispensable part of our family and we are counting on him,” said Antic. “He will play against Algeria and, rest assured, he will be ready for the World Cup.”
Vidic is no longer the solitary star in the Serbian galaxy. Antic’s favoured first-choice XI also includes players from Chelsea, Inter Milan, Valencia and Ajax, and two wingers whose reputations have skyrocketed of late.
Standard Liege’s Milan Jovanovic produced some exquisite performances in qualifying and recently signed a pre-contract with English giants Liverpool, while Milos Krasic has dazzled for CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League and, subsequently, been linked with moves to Real Madrid, AC Milan and Arsenal, among others.
“It was an amazing feeling to qualify for the World Cup,” said the 25-year-old. “But now we have to look ahead to the challenge in South Africa. We're taking it step by step as we prepare. It’s a great period in Serbian football. We’re playing good football and getting good results, and it’s important we maintain this in order to go to the competition high on confidence.”