- Veljko Paunovic led Serbia to FIFA U-20 World Cup glory in 2015
- Serbia’s senior side currently top their Russia 2018 qualifying section
- The Chicago Fire coach discusses "incredible" recent signing Bastian Schweinsteiger
“If Serbia make it to Russia, you won’t believe the impact it will have. Because of how much football means, you can guarantee it will benefit society, industry – everything.”
In making this prediction, Veljko Paunovic speaks from experience. And not only as a former Serbia international. More pertinent are his memories of the outpouring of joy that followed his U-20 side becoming world champions at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
On their return from New Zealand, Paunovic and his players were greeted by over 50,000 chanting, flare-waving fans, packed into a Belgrade square. And that, he says, emphasises football's awesome power in an often-troubled country.
“That was just amazing,” the Chicago Fire coach told FIFA.com. “Serbia, as most people will know, has not had it easy over the last 20 or 30 years. And football is like a religion in our country.
“Serbia had won World Cups in basketball and other sports before 2015 and, whenever that happened, the winning team would come back to the same historic building in Belgrade and salute the people from the balcony. But the people who work at that building said they had never seen anything like the crowd and the reception my U-20 boys got. It was wonderful, and it shows how crazy our country is for football.”
Those passionate supporters have not had nearly as much to cheer from the senior team over recent years, with Serbia having failed to qualify for each of the last three major tournaments. There has, though, been a notable improvement on the road to Russia 2018, with Slavoljub Muslin’s side top of Group D and unbeaten in their five matches thus far.
“It’s very encouraging and great to see,” said Paunovic. “But there are big challenges to come and we still need to face the most important games of the qualifiers. If this team can come together as a family, though, I’m sure we will see them in Russia.”
Given Paunovic’s remarkable success with the U-20s in New Zealand, plenty expected him to be given the job of leading Serbia to the 2018 finals. Instead, and with his role in the association having changed for the worse after that U-20 World Cup triumph, he moved to USA and the league in which he had finished his playing career.
“I had become good friends with Chicago Fire’s general manager, Nelson Rodriguez, when we were together at Philadelphia Union back in 2011,” explained the former Atletico Madrid midfielder. “What I recognised back then was the massive potential this league had. When I had the chance to come back to work here with Nelson – who really shares my passion for the game – I didn’t hesitate for one second.
“Even from when I played in MLS, I see a huge, huge improvement. That’s in the quality of players and coaches, the facilities and infrastructure, the organisation – everything. And it’s still growing. This league is only going to get better.”
Recruiting reigning world champions can only accelerate that process, of course, and that was exactly what the Fire managed when they signed Bastian Schweinsteiger in March. Yet while the 32-year-old midfielder has collected every one of the game’s top honours, not to mention 121 caps for Germany, it is his humility and hunger - as much as his experience and ability - that has wowed Paunovic.
As he explained: “We were looking for a long time for the kind of player we needed, but also the personality we needed. And we always felt Bastian could be that guy - we just weren’t sure if we could get him. But from the first meeting we had, it was clear that not only was he completely right for us, but that he also genuinely wanted to come here.
“Now, having him here, he’s everything I could have hoped for and more. His attitude, commitment, desire to win and to influence the others with his experience, ideas and knowledge about the game, it’s incredible. I can’t put a value on it. We are blessed to have a player like him here with us.”