BELGRADE: After stating that the “the FSS [the Serbian FA] showed a lot of initiative,” the well-traveled Dutch manager Dick Advocaat has decided that his next job will be in Belgrade. His main mission will be to guide Serbia to Euro 2016 in France.
The last time a foreigner coached the national side, Serbia didn’t make it to any major tournament while dropping points against Armenia and Finland and suffering an embarrassing loss to Kazakhstan in the process. The Spaniard at the helm from 2006 to 2007, Javier Clemente, was relieved of his duties after failing to reach Euro 2008. Although he tried to reshuffle the side, ditching familiar faces like Savo Milosevic and Mateja Kezman for a newer crop of players like Danko Lazovic and Marko Pantelic, the results never arrived. With Serbia out of the last two major soccer tournaments in Euro 2012 and the recent World Cup, Advocaat has a job to do.
He will be replacing Ljubinko Drulovic, who was appointed caretaker manager after outspoken coach and former national team regular Sinisa Mihajlovic quit to take over the reins at Serie A club Sampdoria. To Mihajlovic’s own admission, his stint at the national helm was experimental. In his first match for Serbia against then European and World champions Spain, Mihajlovic introduced four debutants, left out regulars like Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Milan Jovanovic, and the average age of his squad was a tender 23 years of age. Many young Serbian talents, such as new Liverpool acquisition Lazar Markovic, were given their debuts under Mihajlovic.
Despite Mihajlovic’s risky selection of youngsters, he admitted when he took the job that if he did not reach the World Cup Finals he would resign, and this is where Dick Advocaat enters the picture. Drulovic, who was coaching Serbia’s U-19s before becoming acting manager, continued Mihajlovic’s test-and-try approach by fielding youngsters. As Advocaat steps into the frame, the lights are dimming for veterans of the national side like Vladimir Stojkovic and Zoran Tosic, and he will need to make the decision to axe the lot completely, or to give them a run for their money.
Some experienced regulars like Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic — the most obvious choice to be made captain — and Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov will most likely remain mainstays, but national side under-performers like BVB Dortmund’s Neven Subotic and Internazionale’s Zdravko Kuzmanovic may face stiff opposition for their respective roles from the up and coming youngsters. It would make most sense to solidify the positions of striker and playmaker in Lazar Markovic and Dusan Tadic, and then permanently choose his central midfielders, with Nemanja Matic of Chelsea one definite option, with his partner most likely Nemanja Gudelj, who was made AZ Alkmaar skipper by none other than ex-AZ manager Advocaat himself.
Like Gudelj, Dusan Tadic — who has recently signed for Southampton AFC under another Dutchman in Ronald Koeman — has plied his trade in the Dutch Eredivisie for the past four seasons: with FC Groningen and most recently FC Twente. Proven to be the best satellite league for younger footballers, the Eredivisie has no shortage of Serbian players, with the current crop almost entirely featuring for Serbia at youth level.
Promising number ten Filip Kostic has made it into several Eredivisie teams of the week after scintillating performances for FC Groningen. And recently-capped Filip Djuricic’s trickery and confidence with the ball made him a fan favorite at SC Heerenveen before his departure to SC Benfica last summer. No-nonsense forward Uros Djurdjevic, who just penned a move to Vitesse, is surely going to be given his first cap any time now, as is Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic’s younger brother, also named Uros, who plays for NAC Breda. Another rising star that could recieve a call-up is Dejan Meleg, on loan at SC Cambuur from Ajax. The last and perhaps most interesting prospect for Advocaat would be to lure Ajax’s 18-year old winger Richairo Zivkovic to the Serbian setup. Although he represents the Netherlands at junior level, Zivkovic, who was described as “Groningen[’s]…best talent since the likes of Robben and one Luis Suarez (before to his move to Ajax)”, is of Serbian and Curaçaoan descent.
The pool of players at Advocaat’s disposal don’t only exist in the Eredivisie. With most young Serbian players these days skipping the ritual of signing for domestic powerhouses Red Star Belgrade or Partizan and jumping straight into European soccer, Advocaat has Serbs playing in every league in Europe. In last February’s English Premier League encounter between Manchester City and Chelsea, there were four Serbs on the pitch: Kolarov and Nastasic for City and Ivanovic and Matic for Chelsea. Ranging from the aforementioned EPL to La Liga to Serie A and finally to the Bundesliga, Serbs have become household names in many top European leagues. By no means in relation to their footballing skill and more to do with Serbs being found in any league, from the Faroe Islands to Georgia, Serbs have become the Brazilians of Europe.
Advocaat’s eyes will definitely be focused on a select few players, all of whom have made their debuts. Apart from the already mentioned players, these players will attract Advocaat’s attention: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Anderlecht), Filip Djordjevic (Lazio), Milos Jojic (BVB Dortmund), Darko Lazovic (Red Star Belgrade), Nemanja Pejcinovic (Lokomotiv Moscow), and Adem Ljajic (AS Roma), to name a few.
A wide and tasty variety of players to select doesn’t mean Advocaat’s new job will be a bed full of roses. Off-the-field, the Dutchman will have to deal with a nation whose soccer is deeply entangled with politics, and more importantly, which has a fan base that is unlike anywhere else he has coached before. True, Advocaat may have coached Zenit St. Petersburg, whose fans have an important role at the club, but despite their opposition to the signing of black players, their power never amounted to being able to dictate the national side’s affairs. Advocaat can attest to that because he was also head coach of Russia from 2010 to 2012. But in October 2010 when Serbia faced Italy in Genoa, the match was called off after only six minutes because of rowdy crowds and the usage of flares. Why did this happen? Because Red Star supporters did not want to see Vladimir Stojkovic, who once played for Red Star but made the doomed decision to sign for eternal rivals Partizan, start as goalkeeper.
Vladimir ‘Pizon’ Petrovic, the Serbia boss at the time, should have foreseen the fans’ displeasure as Stojkovic’s obituary was published in local papers the day after he signed for Partizan. Perhaps this also means Advocaat should learn Serbian and read the morning papers before discussing tactics.
Still, unlike Clemente who had never tested the waters of Eastern European soccer before arriving in Serbia, Advocaat’s resume is perhaps best suited for anyone foreign that plans on succeeding there. His new test will kick off this September, when Serbia travels to Armenia to begin their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, which also includes games against tough opponents Portugal and Denmark.
Follow Ilija Trojanovic on Twitter: @paliserb