Serbia's campaign in South Africa defied logic: they lost to Ghana, beat Germany, but then lost to Australia. It was a campaign where Radomir Antic's side took their followers from a low to a high only to dump them down to earth again. As the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti put it: "The Eagles were grounded at the moment when the whole nation saw them soaring into the next stage."
It was a campaign, above all, that left the Serbs – players and press alike – lamenting their missed opportunities. Serbia, who had qualified for the FIFA World Cup™ as group winners ahead of France, could have won both matches they lost. In their opening Group D fixture against Ghana on 13 June, Milos Krasic and Nemanja Vidic both spurned excellent opportunities even after the dismissal of Serbia defender Aleksandar Lukovic.
That red card followed an injudicious challenge by Lukovic which earned him a second yellow card; if that was bad decision-making by Lukovic, it paled beside Zdravko Kuzmanovic's brainwave in handling a ball in the penalty box to gift Ghana the spot-kick which Asamoah Gyan converted for the west Africans' winner with five minutes remaining. Defender Nemanja Vidic admitted afterwards that Serbia had been "sloppy" and "a little bit scared", yet they seemed to have made amends in their second outing in Port Elizabeth last Friday.
Serbian footballers had not beaten Germany for 37 years – not as Yugoslavia, nor Serbia and Montenegro, nor plain old Serbia. The Germans had not suffered a FIFA World Cup first-round loss since 1982. Yet that it precisely what the Serbs inflicted on them thanks to Milan Jovanovic's acrobatic 38th-minute half-volley. Playing against ten men for 53 minutes they rode their luck when Samir Khedira slammed a shot against the crossbar. And as against Ghana, they conceded a needless penalty through Vidic's handball but this time goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic was equal to Lukas Podolski's effort.
"As a group, we have worked so hard over the last two years and this is the end result of what we have achieved over those two years," said a delighted Antic afterwards, but unfortunately it proved the end result in a different sense. Facing the Socceroos in Nelspruit on Monday, Serbia had high hopes of building on their victory over the Germans and advancing to the last 16. Instead they ended the night with Group D's wooden spoon.
Antic's men dominated the first period but failed to profit from several good chances – midfielder Krasic was arguably the biggest culprit when he rounded goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in the 12th minute but, from a narrowed angle, missed the empty net. In the second half, however, the Socceroos tore up the script as Tim Cahill and Brett Holman struck. Marko Pantelic pulled a goal back to revive their hopes and, with Germany beating Ghana, Serbia would have progressed with one goal more.
This is the best performance for us in this World Cup but we take nothing from that
It did not come, however, leaving the frustrated Serbs to focus on the moment Vidic's header struck Cahill’s hand in the penalty box. That was not the cause of their demise, however. Vidic said: "We had a great first half but I was scared after those chances were missed – that is football, small details can determine the winner. This is the best performance for us in this World Cup but we take nothing from that."
Sadly Serbia had only themselves to blame, as Vecernje Novosti admitted. The paper said: "The whole nation thought we were in the second round. But it's unbelievable how much this team can frustrate with their excellent qualities but their inability to convert [chances] and win." Not for the first time in the history of Balkan football, Serbia's footballers in South Africa have given their public a story of what might have been.