White Eagles flying high
© AFP

With some 7.5 million inhabitants, Serbia is the largest state to have emerged from the collapse of the former Yugoslav Republic at the beginning of the 1990s. On a European scale, however, they remain a relatively small nation, which makes reaching two FIFA World Cups™ since independence all the more impressive.

While still playing under the name of Yugoslavia, the team reaching the Round of 16 at France 1998 before falling to a narrow 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Netherlands. Eight years later in Germany, Serbia-Montenegro, as they were then known, found themselves in a fearsome group alongside Argentina, the Netherlands and Côte d'Ivoire. The dream abruptly came to an end in the group stages, following three defeats and ten goals conceded to just two scored.

In between those two finals, Yugoslavia also took part in the UEFA EURO 2000 in the Netherlands and Belgium, where they again fell at the hands of the Dutch, this time in the quarter-finals. This means that every time Serbia - as either Yugoslavia or Serbia-Montenegro - have made it through to a major tournament, the Oranje have played a significant part in sending them packing.

Back among the elite
In the wake of the a 3-2 defeat to Côte d'Ivoire in their final group game at Germany 2006, the combined Serbia-Montenegro team was disbanded, with the Serbian national squad taking over where the previous team left off and Montenegro setting up a new entity. While the latter are yet to qualify for a major tournament, Serbia have already laid down a marker.

While the Serbs did not quite make it through to EURO 2008 in Switzerland and Austria, they have since gone from strength to strength since Radomir Antic assumed the coaching reins. Indeed, the 61-year-old former Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid boss has guided the team back to world football's top table.

In qualification for South Africa 2010, the Beli Orlovl (White Eagles) found themselves drawn with France, Romania, Austria, Lithuania and the Faroe Islands. Undaunted by rivals including the Germany 2006 runners-up, they went on to top the group and book their ticket directly for this year's tournament.

Star-studded squad
A key feature of Antic's side during qualifying was their defensive strength - shipping a miserly eight goals in ten matches. Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea) and Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) were the foundation on which the rock-solid backline was built, with another English Premiership player, goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic of Wigan Athletic, guarding the net.

The midfield is built around the experience of Inter Milan star Dejan Stankovic. And the 31-year-old captain is ably supported by Nenad Milijas (Wolverhampton Wanderers) and Zdravko Kuzmanovic (Stuttgart), who are already taking a great deal of responsibility on their young shoulders.

Nor are they slouches in the forward line. Milan Jovanovic (Standard Liege) led the way with five goals during the qualifiers, and with the giant Nikola Zigic (Valencia) and Marko Pantelic (Ajax) also capable of tearing opposition defences apart, it is no wonder that Serbia had such a successful campaign.

Highest ever ranking
The strength of the team is reflected in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking from March 2010. Now up to 13th place, Serbia have matched their highest ever ranking, one they had previously achieved in September 2009. The White Eagles are up to 980 points, a jump of 64 compared with the previous month, which saw them rise six places in the table to within touching distance of the top ten.

The country's last defeat dates back to October 2009, when they went down 2-1 to Lithuania in a FIFA World Cup qualifier after they had already booked their ticket to South Africa. Since then, they have defeated both Northern Ireland and Korea Republic 1-0 to get firmly back to winning ways.

And they will be determined to continue that run with three important friendlies in the build-up to South Africa 2010, starting with April's away game in Japan, a May clash with New Zealand in Klagenfurt (Austria) and a meeting with Poland in early June. All of which should offer Antic's squad the chance to build confidence and earn valuable ranking points in their quest for the top ten.

As regards the FIFA World Cup itself, however, Serbia will once again feel the Final Draw has been tough on them, after finding themselves in Group D alongside Germany, Ghana and Australia. Though certainly a daunting challenge, it is one that the White Eagles, and the likes of established performers Stojkovic and Danko Lazovic, on a record 29 caps apiece, are doubtless relishing.