Luke Matthews

As qualification for the 2010 World Cup slowly reaches its conclusion, fans are left wandering who will claim the final four places reserved for European countries. Eight countries remain and included are the former Yugoslav republics, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia; who face Portugal and Slovenia in two-legged play-offs respectively. It would be fair to say that both countries are underdogs to reach South Africa next year and join their neighbours Serbia, who qualified as winners from a group that included France and Romania.

Not that long ago, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia were part of the same nation along with Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro; three countries who have all failed to qualify for next year’s major event. So all in all, what started as a promising qualifying campaign for all the countries excluding Montenegro, has fizzled out into one where it is extremely possible that Serbia will be the sole representatives in Africa of the old Yugoslavia.

All this poses the very interesting question of what if? What if the old Yugoslav republics were still together? How good would they be? Of course, the footballing world is unlikely to ever find out. Yet, consider that Serbia possess the defensive steel of Nemanja Vidic, Croatia can boast about their midfield maestro, Luka Modric and Bosnia-Herzegovina have the lethal Edin Džeko leading the line, and it is clear that most international managers in the world would have nightmares about coming up against a newly reformed Yugoslavia.

The picture might not be as rosy as it first appears, after all, there aren’t any world class goalkeepers as such from the Balkan region. The same goes for the left-back position. Another problem is the lack of a quality defensive midfielder. Up front the signs look brighter and any coach with such a wealth of talent to choose from would undoubtedly struggle with this admittedly pleasant problem. 

So who though would make the cut? What would a reformed Yugoslavian national team look like?

Goalkeeper – Samir Handanovic (Slovenia, Udinese) – The 25-year-old Slovenian has made the Udinese goalkeeper’s jersey his own in the last two seasons. The 6’5 shot-stopper is known for his brilliant reflexes and ability to come and claim the ball in the air. It is these qualities that rate him higher than Serbian Vladimir Stojkovic and the current Croatian number 1, Stipe Pletikosa. 

Right Wing-back – Darijo Srna (Croatia, Shakhtar Donetsk) – Captain of both national and club teams, Srna is one of the most versatile and hard-working players around. Equally comfortable at right-back or right midfield, the boy from south Croatia is also somewhat of a dead-ball specialist, which is the reason he is Croatia’s second all-time leading goalscorer. Other competitors for this position would be Croatian team-mate, Vedran Corluka and Serbian, Antonio Rukavina.

Centre-back – Nemanja Vidic (Serbia, Manchester United) – Vidic picks himself in this team as he is arguably the finest centre-back in world football. The 28-year-old, who is renowned for his bravery, physical presence and brilliant heading ability, has struck up formidable defensive partnerships with both Rio Ferdinand and Branislav Ivanovic at club and national level respectively. Vidic has been named in the English PFA Team Of The Year for three consecutive years which goes to show he is one of the best in the business. 

Centre-back – Branislav Ivanovic (Serbia, Chelsea) – Vidic’s partner in crime for the Serbian national team: Ivanovic can play anywhere along the backline and has similar characteristics to Vidic. The tough-tackling centre-half is now an established first-team player for Chelsea. He helped his club to the Champions League semi-final after two headed goals effectively knocked Liverpool out of the competition. Other competitors for the centre-back positions are experienced Croatian Josip Simunic and 20-year-old Serb Neven Subotic who is being tipped as a star of the future.

Left Wing-back – Danijel Pranjic (Croatia, Bayern Munich) – Another versatile Croatian wing-back in the team, Pranjic plays left-back for Croatia and on the wing at club level. The energetic wide man gets plenty of assists and is a fantastic team player; two characteristics which are highly rated by Bayern Munich considering they paid €8.7M for the man from Nasice this summer. Serbian veteran Ivica Dragutinovic would provide tough competition but the Croatian’s attacking prowess means he would shade it.

Defensive-midfield – Dejan Stankovic (Serbia, Inter Milan) – The 31-year-old midfielder is another member of the team who brings versatility to the party. Although he is widely known for the attacking midfield role enjoys at Inter Milan, the Serbian captain is also a nifty defensive midfielder. Stankovic’s main attribute is his creative streak which can be as effective in starting many a move off. Another option would be the Croatian defensive midfielder, Ognjen Vukojevic who currently plies his trade for Dynamo Kyiv. The 25-year-old has been in impressive form for his club since his 2008 transfer from Dinamo Zagreb; however he does not have the current pedigree of Stankovic.

Centre-midfield – Luka Modric (Croatia, Tottenham Hotspur) – The diminutive midfielder is currently one of the hottest properties in world football and it is not hard to see why. It seems Modric has all the attributes to put himself In the same bracket as Yugoslavian greats such as Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savicevic. Renowned for his range of passing, acceleration and excellent technique, Modric would be a welcome addition to any team in Europe and is sure to lead his club side Spurs to future success.

Centre-midfield – Zvjezdan Misimovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wolfsburg) – The Munich-born midfield maestro is somewhat of a late bloomer and has only shown his true potential in the last three seasons. However, it is hard to imagine that his Wolfsburg team could win the Bundesliga without the man who was once dubbed overweight and too slow by a former under-21 manager. The 27-year-old may not be blessed with blistering pace but his passing ability is second to none. 23 assists last season speaks for itself and last season’s brilliant form has been continued. Other players considered for the central roles are Modric’s team-mate for club and country, Niko Kranjcar. 19-year-old Bosnian, Miralem Pjanic has also been in exceptional form this term for Lyon.

Centre-forward – Edin Dzeko (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wolfsburg) – Currently one of the most feared strikers in world football, Edin Dzeko has made something of a name for himself in the last two seasons. The boy from Sarajevo is still only 23-years-old and made headlines for his formidable partnership with Brazilian Grafite last season. Between them the two scored 54 league goals to make them the most successful strike partnership in Bundesliga history. The 6’3 striker is a deadly finisher with his foot or head. AC Milan apparently had a €25M bid rejected this summer. Dzeko guarantees goals and that reason alone suggests he would be worthy of a starting place in this team.

Striker – Mirko Vucinic (Montenegro, Roma) – Roma’s number 9 is a pacy striker who was the obvious choice to captain his newly formed nation in 2007. The dynamic man from Niksic is also comfortable playing on the left wing as he is able to come on to his favoured right foot and show his goal-scoring ability. The former Lecce striker is also very hard-working and can often be seen tracking back into midfield when necessary. 

Striker – Goran Pandev (Macedonia, Lazio) – The only Macedonian in the team is considered to be one of the best two players the country has ever produced along with the great Darko Pancev. The 26-year-old is not an out and out striker, yet has a brilliant goal-scoring record. Pandev was one of the most in-demand strikers in Europe this summer. However, the likes of Liverpool and Inter Milan were unwilling to match Lazio’s €19M valuation. Rejecting these bids now looks a mistake as Pandev has filed for the termination of his contract: The striker will now sit in Lazio’s reserves until an acceptable bid is made. In today’s climate however, €19M seems a bargain for a top-class striker in his prime. Other strikers in contention are Ivica Olic of Croatia and Bayern Munich and the young Montenegran, Stevan Jovetic, who is one to watch out for with Manchester United reportedly interested in taking him of Fiorentina’s books.

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Photo courtesy: Aleksandr Osipov