It was a decision that took Serbia coach Veljko Paunovic just 60 seconds to make, yet it could not have proved more decisive for his team’s hopes at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015. Hungary were still celebrating the 57th-minute Bence Mervo strike that had put them 1-0 up in their Round of 16 tie in Dunedin, when Paunovic turned to the bench and called on his No7.
After a few words and a couple of encouraging pats on the back, the next time the ball went out of play on went Ivan Saponjic in place of Filip Jankovic. The youngest player in the White Eagles’ squad, at the age of just 17, Saponjic thus joined the fray on 58 minutes to add his weight to an attack that had tried everything – only to be denied time and again by a Hungarian keeper, Gyorgy Szekely, in inspired form.
Come the 91st minute, however, the rangy young striker, measuring in at 1.92m, would finally break Szekely’s resistance. “I saw the ball dropping between three defenders [from a corner], and with little twist of my head I managed to get a header away and into the net,” said Saponjic in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
“Beforehand I had a feeling that I was going to get a goal,” continued the FK Partizan Belgrade front-man, whose last-gasp effort sent the match into extra time. “I’m very happy for the team and, of course, on a personal note too. We deserved this win: we’d been the better team on the pitch, we looked brighter, and I’m very happy that ended up being reflected in the scoreline.”
Up against it
The wind should thus have been in Serbia’s sails for the added 30 minutes, but that changed after Milan Gajic was dismissed for a second yellow card shortly after Saponjic’s equaliser. In their fourth game in just eleven days, Paunovic’s charges thus needed to tackle the whole of extra time with ten men...
“The coach told us that we had to play the way we always do, that nothing needed to change with a man down,” revealed Saponjic. “He said we had to show the same character and the same passion we’d shown in all our games. There were no tactical changes, he just asked me to play a little bit deeper to help out my colleagues defensively.”
I think we deserved it because we showed a lot of heart. Today we gave everything.
The first half of extra time came and went without further movement on the scoreboard and though Serbia did cede some of the initiative, plenty of attacking intent still remained. No more so than via Saponjic who, even when surrounded by up to six opponents, never stopped offering himself as an outlet whenever his side had possession.
And with the match seemingly drawing to a conclusion once more, Saponjic, this time aided by a helping hand from Lady Luck, again provided a decisive intervention. Picking up the ball on the right flank in the 118th minute, the youngster drove forward before aiming a low cross at team-mate Mijat Gacinovic. The ball flicked up off the boot of Hungary defender Attila Talaber and looped into the back of the net.
“Right at the end we got lucky with the own goal,” admitted Saponjic. “But I think we deserved it because we showed a lot of heart. Today we gave everything, we put everything into it. We had a lot of shots at goal and in the end, with God’s help, we were rewarded with the win. Not just for how we played in this game, but for all the effort we’ve been putting in so far at this championship.”
All of which meant a dramatic spectacle ended with wild celebrations on one side and deep sadness on the other. Serbia can now turn their thoughts to the quarter-finals, when they will meet USA in Auckland, while the Hungarians face a long, painful trip home.
“This game will give us a huge boost,” said Saponjic, as the interview drew to a close. “Hungary gave us a very tough game, but that’s a positive thing. We picked up a lot of experience and we’re still chasing the title. I’m sure that all these feelings, all these emotions, will help us along the way.”