“Time and sport can make a big difference,” observed Croatian legend Robert Prosinecki in an interview with FIFA.com last year, at which time he was in charge of Serbian giants Crvena Zvezda.
A former star at the Belgrade club, Prosinecki has little regard for the divisions and troubles of the past, a quality shared by the Croatian Dejan Lovren and the Serbian Milan Bisevac.
The two halves of Lyon’s impressive central-defensive pairing, Lovren and Bisevac have struck up a partnership that would have been unthinkable several years ago, following the long and bloody war that pitched their countries against each other and led to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. FIFA.com spoke to them both.
“Dejan and I are great friends,” said Bisevac of his central-defensive partner. “He really helped me settle in because we speak the same language. He’s a great guy and a fantastic player too. Our families see a lot of each other and we go round to each other’s houses for meals. We never talk about what happened though.”
“It’s just like we’ve always known each other,” said Lovren, returning the compliment. “It’s great to have him in the team, especially as he’s right alongside me in the centre of defence.”
A perfect combination
The pleasure they derive from playing side by side is shared by Lyon fans, who are appreciative of their contribution to the team’s fine domestic season and the second place they currently occupy behind Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain.
“We’re working hard and I hope we’ll be able to keep snapping away at PSG’s heels. If there’s a chance for us to claim the title, then we’ll do what we can to take it,” said Bisevac, formerly with the Parisian club. “I don’t think anyone else apart from the players and the coaching staff honestly expected us to be pushing PSG this season.”
With Hugo Lloris and Kim Kallstrom both departing last summer, and Michel Bastos following suit over the winter, Les Gones seemed ill-equipped to rival the star-studded Parisian outfit.
Drawing on their academy to fill the vacancies, Lyon have nevertheless managed to put together a compelling championship challenge, and while they might lack the power and swagger that took them to seven straight league titles between 2002 and 2008, Les Gones are walking tall again.
“Football’s not about individuals. It’s a team game,” said Lovren, who arrived at the club from Dinamo Zagreb in 2010. “It’s all about chemistry. Lyon have always tried to replace departing players with people of similar quality, whether they’re new signings or youngsters promoted to the first team, and they’ve been successful in doing that.”
“I’ve been at Lyon for a little over six months now, and it’s exactly as I thought it would be,” explained the combative Bisevac, who has been in France since joining Lens from Crvena Zvezda in 2007. “It’s a great club with a great stadium, great fans, a great history and a great record. It’s a club with a winning culture.”
The Kosovo-born Serb, who turns 30 later this year, added: “Life wasn’t easy for my parents and I in Serbia. I had to live through the war and everything, and maybe that’s made me want to succeed even more.”
“I was very young and don’t remember much about the war, and I had a pretty normal childhood” said Lovren, every bit as tenacious as his Serbian sidekick but six years his junior. “We come from the Balkans, and people are very passionate about their football there.”
Those passions are rising ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. While Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro both stand top of their respective qualifying groups, Croatia and Serbia lie second and third respectively in Group A and are due to meet each other in a vital game this Friday in Zagreb, a match that will pit the two Lyon colleagues against each other.
“It’s a very important match because of the history,” said Bisevac, a viewpoint shared by his club-mate, who said: “It’s such a big game and there’s more at stake than three points.”
The two also shared similar views on the ultimate objective of reaching the world finals: “It’s a dream,” commented Bisevac, while the Croat said: “It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I was a young boy.”
Six points behind their neighbours, the White Eagles have plenty of ground to make up, as Bisevac acknowledged: “We have a young team. There’s a lot of quality there, but not much experience. We lost our last two matches and that’s made it very difficult for us to go and qualify. We’ve still got a bit of a chance, though, and we’ll do everything we can to take it. There’s so much riding on the Croatia game for us.”
“We are in a good position, but we need to keep our standards up because Belgium are doing very well too and it’s going to be a tight battle for top spot,” said Lovren, whose side lie behind Les Diables Rouges on goal difference. “We’re going to prepare for the Serbia match just like we would for any other match. When you play for your country you have to be professional about every game.”