Serbia launch exciting new era
© AFP

In the past 15 years, there have been many changes both in political terms and on the pitch for the people of Serbia. Although the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed on 28 April 1992, its football team did not play its first match until 23 December 1994 when they lost to Brazil 2-0 in Porto Alegre. Yugoslavia qualified for the FIFA World Cup™ in 1998 (reaching the Round of 16) and UEFA EURO 2000 (quarter-finalists), but when the federal parliament created a new confederation: the state union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, a new football team was born.

Serbia and Montenegro's first game came on 12 February 2003, a 2-2 draw with Azerbaijan in Podgorica, but when the preliminary stage for the 2006 FIFA World Cup began, the fledgling nation hit the ground running. They were undefeated in their ten matches with six victories, finishing above the likes of Spain and Belgium in the process. The team also conceded just one goal during the preliminary stage, the best defensive record out of all the 51 European teams and, consequently, were widely considered to have the potential to go far in Germany.

Sadly for Ilija Petkovic's side, things did not go according to plan in last year's finals. They lost their opening match to the Netherlands by a single goal, ended up on the wrong end of a 6-0 result against Argentina and lost narrowly to Côte d'Ivoire in their last group game. Yet behind the team's preparations for the finals was an intriguing political backdrop, which ensured that Serbia and Montenegro's first appearance at a FIFA World Cup final event would also be their last.

On 21 May 2006, Montenegro voted to dissolve its political union with Serbia. Two weeks later Montenegro became a sovereign state, meaning that there would be separate teams competing in future tournaments. And so, for the fourth time in less than two decades, the people of the region had a new national team to follow.

A debut to remember
Five weeks after the Final of Germany 2006, Serbia played their first international match against the Czech Republic and won 3-1 away. Although many eyes were on Pavel Nedved, who was making his farewell appearance for the Czechs, it was Serbia with their new name, flag, kit and national anthem who stole the show. Despite going a goal behind through Jiri Stajner, goals from Danko Lazovic, Marko Pantelic and Aleksandar Trisovic ensured a memorable start for the Serbians.

Under the guidance of former Spain coach Javier Clemente, Serbia got their qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2008 off to a wonderful start with three consecutive home victories over Azerbaijan, Belgium and Armenia and a hard-fought away draw in Poland. Given the team's run of form, they suffered a surprising 2-1 reverse to Kazakhstan on 24 March, but bounced back with a 1-1 draw at home to Portugal and a 2-0 away win in Finland to take them joint second in the standing; five points behind group leaders Poland, but with two games in hand.

Nikola Zigic has been the star for Serbia in their nine full internationals as an independent nation so far, scoring in five of them. The 26-year-old Racing Santander striker, who stands at 6ft 8 inches (202 cm), was voted Serbia's player of the year in 2006 and looks certain to be among the contenders for the same award in 2007.

Zigic could have a series of young pretenders battling for his crown in the next few years. At the recent UEFA European U-21 Championship, in which Serbia finished as runners-up, no fewer than four of their squad appeared in the 'Team of the Tournament'. Goalkeeper Damir Kahriman, defenders Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic together with midfielder Bosko Jankovic were all lauded for their performances in the Netherlands and are widely tipped to have a bright future in the game.

Yet it is not only Kahriman, Kolarov, Ivanovic and Jankovic that are causing excitement in Planet Football, as their country is making an impressive impact. In August 2006, Serbia were 33 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and have now climbed to 22nd, with a nine place rise in June's edition. With just 15 ranking points between them and a place in world football's top 20, many expect Serbia's star to continue rising for the foreseeable future.