As the World Cup approaches, excitement among fans of the Croatian and Serbia-Montenegrin teams is reaching fever pitch.
By Georgi Mitev-Shantek for Southeast European Times in Belgrade – 26/05/06
Serbia-Montenegro's national football team players carry a goal during the team's first training day in Belgrade, on Sunday (21 May). [Getty Images]
At football's World Cup, which will be held in Germany from 9 June to 9 July, two national teams -- Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro -- will represent Southeast Europe. Croatia has been placed in Group F, along with Japan, Australia and Brazil. Serbia-Montenegro has been placed in Group C, along with Argentina, the Netherlands and Ivory Coast.
Although the 21 May referendum gave Montenegro its independence from neighbouring Serbia, the two will remain united for the championship. "First, I'll support Montenegro as I always did," said Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, a former basketball player and sports fan. "Next, I always support our neighbours."
Footballers from this part of Europe face an uphill battle to fight their way among 32 world teams. Where football is concerned, all Balkan nations are alike -- they want their favourites to play with the dazzling skill of "European Brazilians", and success is only recognised through high scores.
The teams from Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro come to the championship unbeaten in the qualifying rounds. After having gained independence in 1991, Croatia will be taking part in its third World Cup in a row, ranking 19 on FIFA's list.
Croatian manager Zlatko Kranjcar has a young team, with his son, Nick, as the leading player. Their home supporters are expecting the team to repeat their success at the 1998 World Cup in France, where they came in third. Though the Croatians are in the same group as Brazil, the odds-on winner, they are expected to advance to the second round.
As the heir to the Yugoslav national team, this is Serbia-Montenegro's eighth appearance in the world championship. Its best results were in 1930 and 1962, when Yugoslavia reached the semifinals. Younger generations do not remember that far back and are eager for new victories, after many years of drought. Manager Ilija Petkovic has managed to shape his team -- which formerly registered losses to outsiders such as Azerbaijan -- into one that has allowed only one goal in its last ten qualification games.
Football experts say that Serbia-Montenegro could be the surprise of this World Cup, based on the team's exceptional defensive game, unconventional for a Balkan team. British journalists call the quartet of Mladen Krstajic (Shalke), Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United), Goran Gavrancic (Dinamo Kyev) and Ivica Dragutinovic (Sevilla) the "fantastic quartet" and the top European defence.
Unfortunately, the airy Balkan style of football will not be demonstrated this time by teams from Slovenia (one appearance), Bulgaria (six appearances), Romania (seven appearances), and above all Turkey (three appearances). The absence of the latter team is perhaps the greatest disappointment of the qualifiers. In the last World Cup, Turkey made it all the way to the semifinals and was defeated by the seemingly invincible Brazilians.