After eight years the Serbian National Team is back. The long break from international competitions has produced a change in squad, a new captain and a disputed coach. The country that relishes football more than any other sport is trying to keep the faith while constantly being played with.

Homecoming of Serbian athlethes
Source: Njuz

In October 2017, Slavoljub Muslin, the coach who finally got Serbia to the World Cup,  was terminated shortly after the team qualified for Russia. Mladen Krstajić was placed in his stead. This move by the Serbia Football Federation caused public indignation. And a little confusion.

Krstajić has no prior experience; leading the national team is supposed to be his big break. The former Partizan defender was appreciated on the field, but public opinion changed due to his final roster and his decision to change captains. In Serbia’s umpteenth fresh start, the captain’s armband was taken away from Branislav Ivanović and given to Aleksandar Kolarov.

Unlike the sparse defense, which relies mostly on the current and former captains, Kolarov and Ivanović,  the team is counting on a very strong midfield, with the likes of Nemanja Matić, Dušan Tadić and Andrija Živković. The offence still depends on the good  and the bad days. The final matches before the World Cup showed both. Fluctuations in performance are expected, unlike the goals.

Serbia's players
Source SerbianFooty via Twitter

This mix of seasoned players and rookies will start their World Cup adventure with a match against Costa Rica. The first World Cup match that will make the country stop and stare is undoubtedly special. However, the real football treat is the faceoff with Brazil, where Serbia’s still undistinguishable style will be facing the mythical jogo bonito.

The shortlist had made the public optimistic, mixing stars of the Serbian and European leagues. The final World Cup squad didn’t bring much joy,  while the announcement itself didn’t help.

Months of waiting for the shortlist finally ended at a gas station on the outskirts of Belgrade.

The press was invited to an actual gas station belonging to the general sponsors of Team Serbia, leading to complete ridicule and a set of dubiously funny memes. There were no clear explanations as to why the FA chose tents at a gas station instead of a press room. This choice of venue was interpreted as a lack of seriousness. Something one couldn’t argue.

The Venue World Cup Serbia
The venue. Source: Maja Todic via Twitter

Commentators on and off line would gladly make changes in the squad. The most mentioned name is that of Mijat Gaćinović,  a member of the golden U21 generation who won’t be defending the colors of his country in Russia. He was part of the initial shortlist, only to be crossed off by Krstajić.

It has since been made clear to the public that the young midfielder “didn’ fit into the playing style.” The public questioning of Krstajić’s decisions has led to a noticeable drop in support for the national team.

At this point, optimism is scarce. Serbia is famous for being a country of good players and a disappointing national team, still featuring staples like  Ivanović, Kolarov,  Stojković, and Rukavina, all of whom have been around for years.

The last generation to offer the feeling of a real team is that of 2010, with a squad lead by Radomir Antić. The sense of Antić’s Serbia was united, simple, strong, with little fear of the opponent. The bond within the squad transferred to the public.  Fans around the country would run from work, trying to find any coffee shop with an available spot where they could watch the games.  Miles of coffee shops, jutting together along the city streets, would be filled with loud fans and inevitably some Serbian flags.

The unity didn’t last long; Antić was fired after the South Africa World Cup, which put a stop to a systemic work in the senior team. The cancellation of Antić’s work with the team meant everything would have to start from scratch. Yet again. The dissolution of the team brought back the good old sarcasm and cynicism.

The World Cup represents both a myth and a mission, while the gilded trophy is a true deity. In Serbia, the competition is a sign of absolute success and a ray of hope for better days to come in football.

If you have ever kicked a ball, you know you imagined playing in the final and winning the coveted trophy. Fondly referred to as Zlatna boginja (The Golden Goddess), the trophy isn’t likely to get to Serbia any time soon.

The country that lives for football doesn’t tend to get the desired results, which has created strong cynicism among the fans. Despite adoring the game, we are known to turn on the players in less than 90 minutes. Truth be told, the players aren’t helping. Well-known for their extravagant lifestyles and avid nightlife tendencies, football players are both loved and despised in Serbia. During international breaks, they are more present in the media through their fashion choices than their performance.

Unlike water polo or volleyball players, footballers have the fame of “bad boys”. They don’t shy away from it. This double-edged sword causes the public to envy the lifestyle, while blaming it for defeats.

There are very few innocent things left in football; the only recent embodiment of innocence is one of the country’s former youth teams. The squad, which won the 2015 U20 World Cup. Serbia’s Golden Boys in both their performance and their attitude off the pitch.

Serbia U20
The Golden Boys. Photo Getty.

Due to constant changes at the helm, and a frequent lack of authority among the coaching staff, Serbia’s senior team doesn’t have the stability and the discipline it desperately needs. Players count on the youth program, as it’s the only part of their professional upbringing that offers structure.  This systematic approach to football teaches players both skills and discipline. It represents the key to sustainable success.

As years go by,  for both players and fans, youthful enthusiasm is replaced by the reality, bringing out a very Serbian kind of bitterness. Being hopeful in the long run is hard for Serbs, especially with little proof. The public needs a lot more than scarce bursts of brilliance in order not to be skeptical. A beautiful goal or pass won’t cut it.

The most recent match against Bolivia brought out cautious optimism. Despite Serbia’s 5-1 win, games like this need to become the norm, not just a scarce exception, in order to change the public’s view of the national team. Not to mention that Team Serbia will face far more difficult opponents in Russia.

The Bolivian episode was a much better look for Serbia; finally getting its offence into place. A hat-trick by the very inspired Aleksandar Mitrović, made the crowd sing Mitro’s on fire. Not to mention that a truly amazing goal by former captain Branislav Ivanović that was a pleasure to watch.

Other sports that bring more joy to the nation get more leeway. They do get thrown into the mud when the need arises. However, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does in football.  Water polo brings medals every year. World and European titles, an Olympic gold in 2016… But there is something about football that keeps us watching, despite not always liking what we see. The sport that means the most can push all the buttons at once. An enormous sense of emotional investment creates a foundation for a strong backlash.

On the one hand, defeat is almost expected, based on past experience. On the other, the public wants a miracle. A win, a draw, progressing to the next stage. The nation needs it in order to keep the little faith they have left in the sport and escape the often grim reality of their own lives.

Such miracles don’t happen enough to give breathing room to both players and coaches. The margin of error barely exists, which brings an enormous amount of pressure.

The Serbian attitude is clear: WIN. Always give one hundred percent. Fight for your country. Play as a team. When these requirements aren’t fulfilled and the national team seems listless and divided, there will be very few left to defend it.

We’re about to see if Serbia can avoid a debacle. Despite the reality of mixed signals offered in the past months, entire cities are sure to stop, as people all around the country watch their national team at work. According to the popular proverb, Nada poslednja umire—Hope is the last to die.