Milan Jovanovic vividly remembers the midpoint of 2006. He, like millions of others across the globe, was transfixed by the FIFA World Cup™.
He watched it on television. As a fan, he dreamt of watching Serbia and Montenegro reach the knockout phase. As a footballer, he fantasised over running out in the competition.
Defeats by the Netherlands, Argentina and Côte d'Ivoire swiftly extinguished the former hope, sending his country home with the worst record of the 32 participants. Logic, meanwhile, indicated that the latter was merely a pipe dream - at 25, he was uncapped and had spent the past two seasons languishing in the Lokomotiv Moscow reserves.
Jovanovic, however, didn’t subscribe to that theory. He believed in his own ability and, when handed a first-team chance because of an injury crisis at Standard Liege, for whom he had signed in mid-2006, the Bajina Basta native took it impressively. One year later, at 26, Jovanovic was handed his Serbia bow. Again he seized it, scoring and starring in a 2-0 victory over Finland.
The inventive, prolific winger-cum-forward has not looked back since. His honours collection at club level includes two Juliper League winners’ medals, a Belgian Footballer of the Year award and the country’s Golden Shoe. His international résumé highlights the indispensable leading role he played in Serbia’s unforeseen qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Having won a pool comprising France, Austria, Lithuania and Romania to book a slot on the most prestigious stage in the sport, Serbia kicked off their campaign with high hopes of pressing from Group D, which also featured Germany, Ghana and Australia. Ninety minutes – and a 1-0 defeat by Ghana – later and the consensus was that Radomir Antic’s side were heading home early.
We’re focusing on beating Australia and reaching the last 16. It would simply be massive for Serbian football.
Germany, FIFA World Cup specialists who had overwhelmed Australia in a 4-0 victory, were next up. Only one result was envisaged by the majority – one that would have, as it transpired, sealed Serbia’s elimination. That majority did not include Jovanovic, who duly scored the only goal - a close-range effort in the 38th minute – to leave his team’s destiny in their own hands.
“It’s always been a dream to play in the World Cup – it doesn’t get any bigger,” Jovanovic told FIFA.com. “And to score a goal, a winning goal, was just fantastic. But I have to thank Kras, who made a brilliant cross, and Zigic, who headed down to me, for creating the chance.
“Few gave us a chance against Germany but, even though the pressure was on, we knew we could beat them. It was a massive result. They were a nemesis to us – we hadn’t beaten them in 37 years. But we’ve managed to do that and now we’re determined to overcome another hurdle and reach the next round.
“It won’t be easy. We have to beat Australia and they are a good team. Even though they conceded four goals against Germany, they are a well-organised team who are hard to break down. They also have some good players who have experience of playing in Europe.
“But we want to go far in this tournament. Right now we’re just focusing on beating Australia and reaching the last 16 though. It would simply be massive for Serbian football and for all our supporters back home.”