• Serbia close to securing their spot at Russia 2018
  • Branislav Ivanovic is doubly happy the tournament is being held in Russia
  • Ivanovic: "Russia is my second motherland"

Serbia have a reputation of being a side frequently blessed with world-class talent but lacking that vital ingredient needed to become a world-class team. However, it seems the country is finally shaking off that stereotype in the build-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

Branislav Ivanovic, who spent the majority of his career at Chelsea but now plays for Zenit Saint Petersburg, insists the main strength of this group of players is their unity. "We’re in a promising position but we haven’t got anywhere yet," the Serbia captain told FIFA.com.

"We need to get three points across the next two games to be in control of our fate. We have a united team, there’s excellent team spirit in the camp and it’s producing results, but we mustn’t let our concentration drop. The last two rounds of fixtures will be important for all our rivals, so picking up points won’t be easy."

The celebrations could begin as early as 6 October, when the Beli Orlovi travel to Vienna to face Austria. 

"We’ll try to win, but it will be tough. Austria can no longer qualify so they will play without any added pressure. We won 3-2 at home, but it was a difficult match. I hope we’ll have a lot of fans in the stadium because there are plenty of Serbs in Austria." 

Serbia's upcoming matches
Austria-Serbia on 6 October
Serbia-Georgia on 9 October

Two match points to Serbia
Serbia’s closest competitors in Group D of the European qualifiers are Republic of Ireland and Wales. They have picked up two draws against the Welsh, as well as a draw at home in Belgrade against the Irish before winning away in Dublin. The Serbs were forced to play the final half an hour of that encounter one man down, but they managed to hold out thanks to Aleksandar Kolarov’s strike, putting themselves into a great position for the final push.

"It was a true battle right from the start," Ivanovic recalled, "but we knew we had the ability to control the match, score and not concede. Every one of our players gave everything they had and I see no reasons why it should be any different in Austria."

To use a tennis expression, Serbia now have two match points. If they do not manage to secure qualification in Vienna, they will have a second bite at the cherry at home to Georgia. Should Slavoljub Muslin’s men book passage to Russia, it will be Ivanovic’s second appearance at the World Cup after South Africa 2010, and this time the competition is being held in a country where he can expect local support for his team as well.

"I hope this will be the case!" the defender smiled. "For me, it’s just the ideal place for a World Cup to go ahead. Obviously, it would be hard for Serbia to host it, but Russia is my second motherland and my motivation is through the roof. I repeat: nothing is certain yet, but we want to make our country happy and make it to Russia 2018.

"Serbia is a small country. It would be unrealistic to suggest that we’ll win the World Cup, but we’ll never give up – this is our mentality. We’ll try to take every opportunity we get; clearly not all of them will come off, but this is what we have to strive for. We’ll fight until the end!"

The Serbian appearances record
Ivanovic currently has 96 international caps and could soon overtake the all-time record-holder for Serbia appearances: Dejan Stankovic on 103. The Zenit man makes no secret he would like to achieve the feat but is relaxed about the prospect nonetheless.

"When I started out, my dream was the play for my country at least once. Dejan Stankovic is a legend of Serbian football and has gone down in history. He didn’t set himself the aim of playing as many matches as possible. If he wanted to, he could have reached 150. Let’s not look too far into the future, I’m already 33 years old! I have to keep myself in perfect condition and avoid injuries. If I break the record, great, but it’s not a competition with Dejan."

Ivanovic’s grasp of Russian
Despite spending nine years in England, Ivanovic never forgot his Russian and still speaks as fluently as before.

"I had Russian friends in London and was able to practise," he said. "I spent a lot of time with Yuri Zhirkov during his spell at Chelsea. When I was settling in London, Andriy Shevchenko was unbelievably helpful and we spoke in Russian too. There were a couple of people at the club who spoke the language, so I never had a break away from it. Sometimes it’s easier for me to explain things in Russian than in English."

Branislav’s moment of history
Ivanovic has etched his name permanently into the history books of the Saint Petersburg Stadium, which has already hosted the Confederations Cup and is preparing for the World Cup next summer. It was the Serbian defender who scored the first goal at the arena in a league fixture for Zenit against FK Ural on 22 April 2017.

"I prefer to look to the future," he concluded, "but it’s nice to know that I was lucky enough to score the first goal at this stadium, especially because I think it’s one of the most beautiful in the world."