The sense of history in the making was inescapable when the final whistle sounded on Montenegro’s last game in the preliminary qualifying mini-tournament for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™. Not only had the small south-eastern European country earned a place in the group stage of the continental qualifying competition proper after one victory and two draws, they had also played their nation’s first competitive matches in senior women’s football. It was therefore no surprise to see such exuberant celebrations from the players out on the pitch. Standing on the touchline, coach Zoran Mijovic beamed with pride at what his team had achieved in an astonishingly short space of time.* “After just a year and four months’ work at this level we’ve made history by reaching the group stage of World Cup qualifying,” Mijovic told *FIFA.com *in an exclusive interview. “You could have asked anyone about us doing that 18 months ago and the answer would have been: ‘Maybe we’ll be able to at some point’. We started our preparations in January this year. Our five-day training camp was very important, as were the five friendly matches against different teams around Montenegro. Those games were an excellent way of preparing for the tournament in Lithuania,” the 46-year-old continued. Fledgling foundations*
Their achievements are all the more impressive considering the Montenegro Football Association (FSCG) has only been affiliated to FIFA since 2007 and has had to start virtually from scratch in women’s football. “We now have 12 women’s clubs registered, but at the beginning we only had one,” Mijovic said. “When we started out we had just 70 registered players, whereas now we have more than 350 and new girls are joining every day. That’s given us the opportunity to build up the number players we have between the ages of ten and 14. They’re the ones we’ll need in the future after all.”* *
Montenegro’s rapid success is admirable and underlines the exciting process of change the country’s women’s game is currently experiencing. A league was founded in 2012 and four national teams (U-16, U-17, U-19 and the senior side) are now also well established.
Yet the process has been far from easy and Mijovic has worked hard to steer women’s football in the right direction. “One area of our department of team sports is women’s football and as its leader I saw an opportunity, even if I had to fight against long-standing traditions,” Mijovic recalled. “A lot of parents think girls should play volleyball or handball as we have excellent teams in those areas. But I thought ‘if they can do those sports, why not football as well?’* *
“I’ve been in professional football myself for 35 years and learned a lot as a men’s coach. When we started building up the women’s team, the president asked me if I wanted to stay in women’s football. I’m now in my second year here and can say that we all want women’s football.”**
Committed to success **Mijovic and his coaching team, which consists of an assistant, a goalkeeping coach, physiotherapists and other technical staff, among others, are responsible for the women’s national teams at all levels. They each sacrifice large portions of their free time to help propel the sport’s development. “We’re all volunteers and that’s probably the most important thing. When you love something and you see the girls smile at the prospect of playing against big teams, then that gives you the strength and ambition to continue working,” Mijovic added.
Their efforts were rewarded with a place in the group stage of the Canada 2015 European qualifying competition and Mijovic is already looking forward to the challenge. Montenegro were drawn in Group 6 against England, Ukraine, Belarus, Wales and Turkey, although Mijovic is less concerned with winning at this stage. “The fact that we can play all these games over the next one and a half years is incredibly important for the development of women’s football in Montenegro. On top of that, every player has the chance to progress individually. We’ll learn a lot from these matches and we’ll get better with each game.
“Our chances?”, he asked, laughing. “We’ll be going up against big countries, but we’ll show what we’re capable of. I’m sure we can pick up a few points. If we managed to beat Ukraine last October in qualifying for the U-17 European championships, then why not now own home soil? We play our last game at home to England on 17 September 2014 and I hope there will be a kind of festival in Montenegro after the qualifying campaign. You shouldn’t forget that football is one of the few sports where David can beat Goliath.”