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 [Yugoslavia 2014: The Impossible World Champions]
 by Luke Ginnell


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An attempt to pick a team for the 2014 World Cup from all of the ex-Yugoslav countries
MAYBE YOU'RE RIGHT

There is something that, recently, I have been hearing on a semi-regular basis when I discuss football with people in the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

It goes something like this: "You know, if Yugoslavia still existed, we would be World Champions in Brazil."

Generally, my reaction to this statement errs towards cautious neutrality; my stock response would be to say "maybe you're right." Then, however, I start to think about the raft of outstanding footballers that would be available to such a "Yugoslavia" side. Attacking, flair-filled lineups flash before my eyes.

In spite of myself, I begin to get excited. As for the players; an embarrassment of riches, I hear you say.

Well, yes. Of course. But, I can't help but think about the 1990s, and all the wonderful, talented footballers the region possessed during that awful period. Surely, if any "Yugoslavia" side were to win the World Cup, it would have been the glorious 1990s generation of players. Imagine the magnificent Croatia team that were semi-finalists in France 1998 allied to gifted individuals such as Jugovic, Savicevic, Mihajlovic, Mijatovic, or Zahovic. A formidable outfit, without doubt. Perhaps, even, a team capable of dominating European or world football during that decade?

Quite possibly.

However, this beautiful dream becomes bitterly tainted as a result of the underlying awareness of the political/military events that assaulted the region at this time; the idea of such a team becomes void, difficult even to think of without experiencing a near-overpowering sense of regret and sadness. The team is a chimera. Glorious, yet as illusory and impossible as - in many ways - was Yugoslavia itself. The Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Serbian, and Slovenian players of the 1990s were destined to represent their own newly-independent republics, not a potentially mighty united-Yugoslavia team. It must be pointed out that many of these players were more than happy to do so as a result of their own personal desire to represent their respective republics.

With that in mind, what of the potential team of today? Is there any point applying the same "what if?" thought process to the current generation? Isn't it as pointless an exercise as envisioning an all-conquering Yugoslavia team sweeping to victory in the Stade de France in 1998?

The honest answer is: "yes."

Yugoslavia is no more. It is a "former" state. In the current political climate, the republics will never willingly reunite. Thus, the team of 2012 belongs purely in the realm of fantasy. Thus, I undertake the exercise of compiling a "Yugoslavia" squad for Brazil in 2014 solely to satisfy my own curiosity as to whether a modern "Yugoslavia" might indeed be capable of taking home the World Cup. No political agenda of any kind is being followed; this is an entirely hypothetical pursuit, written with the utmost respect for the independence of the various republics.

THE SQUAD

Selecting a starting eleven wasn't easy. There are so many excellent ex-Yugoslav players playing at the top level that I ended up compiling a squad of about thirty-five players. Obviously, that had to be narrowed down somewhat, so I whittled away with my keyboard until I decided on the regulation FIFA-permitted 23. Here is the squad:

Keepers   
Samir Handanović (28, SLO, Internazionale), Asmir Begović (25, BIH, Stoke), Stipe Pletikosa (33, HRV, FC Rostov)
Defenders   
Nemanja Vidić (31, SRB, Man Utd), Branislav Ivanović (28, SRB, Chelsea), Aleksandar Kolarov (26, SRB, Man City), Vedran Čorluka (26, HRV, Lokomotiv Moscow), Neven Subotić (23, SRB, Dortmund), Darijo Srna (30, HRV, Shakhtar), Emir Spahić (32, BIH, Sevilla)
Midfielders   
Luka Modrić (27, HRV, Réal Madrid), Niko Kranjčar (28, HRV, Dynamo Kiev), Miralem Pjanić (22, BIH, AS Roma), Ivan Rakitić (24, HRV, Sevilla), Zvjezdan Misimović (30, BIH, Dynamo Moscow), Zdravko Kuzmanović (22, SRB, Stuttgart), Miloš Krasić (28, SRB, Fenerbahce), Goran Pandev (29, MKD, Napoli)
Forwards   
Edin Džeko (26, BIH, Man City), Stevan Jovetić (23, MNE, Fiorentina), Mirko Vučinić (29, MNE, Juventus), Mario Mandžukić (26, HRV, Bayern Munich)


As you can see, a pretty decent bunch. It's a squad that, to me at least, compares favourably when put up against the heavy-hitting European, South American, and African teams. Most of the players picked are currently plying their trade in the so-called "big leagues" of Europe; England, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Spain. Indeed, the choice was so wide that numerous excellent players had to be left out of the squad, including Everton's Nikica Jelavić, Ivan Perišić of Dortmund, Danijel Pranjić of Sporting Lisbon, Ivica Olić of Wolfsburg, Stefan Savić and Matija Nastasić of Man City, Adem Ljajić of Fiorentina, as well as Zoran Tošić (CSKA Moscow), Dejan Stanković (Internazionale), Vedad Ibišević (Stuttgart), Sejad Salihović (Hoffenheim), Senad Lulić (Lazio), Gojko Kačar (HSV), Miloš Ninković (Dynamo Kiev), and Nemanja Matić (Benfica).

It's a pretty good indication of the strength of football in this region - or at least the depth of footballing talent that the region exports - that those left out of this squad would make a pretty handy team by themselves. Some of the choices were extremely difficult to make, particularly in the midfield and forward departments. Had the team been picked in 2010, for example, it would have been impossible to leave out Serbia's midfield general Dejan Stanković. But time has moved on - and will continue to do so. Brazil is two years away, and it seems hard to believe that "Deki" will still be playing at that level in 2014. Furthermore, on the issue of age, I have included only five players over the age of thirty - Pletikosa, Vidić, Spahić, Srna, and Misimović - all of whom made the squad based not just on their talent but also on the hugely significant and influential roles they each play for their respective nations. Perhaps, it is unlikely that the 32-year-old Spahić will be playing at the same level in 2014 as he is now; however, given his standing within the BiH camp, his inclusion is justified. The same applies to Srna, Misimović, Pletikosa, and Vidić (whom I've managed to coax out of international retirement for the tournament!).

Similarly, it seems more than possible that many of the younger players that I have left out will, by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around, have overtaken several of those currently included. However, it's pretty impossible to factor that into the equation, so I, quite simply, decided to pick the squad based on the abilities/status of the players at this moment in time. Or, at least, based on my own personal perception on these abilities.

Also interesting is the fact that each of the six recognised former-Yugoslav republics are represented. This came about not due to a misplaced, Pele-inspired attempt at footballing diplomacy, but rather as a result of coincidence. Six countries were involved, and each had at least one player worthy of inclusion.

THE XI

Alas, twenty-three must become eleven.

This was undoubtedly the most difficult part of the process. In truth, only a few players were shoe-ins; in my opinion, Nemanja Vidić, Aleksandar Kolarov, Luka Modrić, and Edin Džeko are relatively unchallenged in relation to their positions in this "team." The remainder of the team, however, required a more detailed consideration.

Starting with the goalkeeper, there are, in my eyes, two outstanding candidates; Samir Handanović of Inter and Asmir Begović of Stoke. Both have been in excellent form over the past few years, with Samir showing enough class at Udinese to justify a big-time move to Stramaccioni's nerazzurri, and Asmir developing into one of the Premier League's most promising keepers. The two share several attributes, such as height, composure, presence, and shot-stopping ability. Samir, however, gains the edge as a result of his reputation as a specialist penalty-stopper, as well as the recognition he has gained throughout Europe, as opposed to the more localised recognition received by Begović.

The fullbacks next. I've chosen to include Kolarov in the left back slot; for me, he's one of the outstanding left backs in the Premier League, possessed as he is of a thunderous left foot, incredible stamina, and a willingness to join in the attack at every opportunity. On the other flank, the most prominent candidates are Darijo Srna and Branislav Ivanović. Both offer completely different attributes in this position. Ivanović brings huge physicality, aerial prowess, and excellent defensive instincts, whereas the elusive Srna is an aggressively attacking fullback, who loves nothing more than surging forward to support the attacking movements of his team. Srna is at the forefront when it comes to attacking fullbacks in Europe, having given years of outstanding service to both Croatia and his Ukrainian club, Shakhtar Donetsk. For this reason, I have decided that his talents cannot be left out of my team and, thus, he takes the right back spot ahead of Chelsea's Ivanović.

However, you haven't heard the last of Big Branislav within the shaky walls of this article. His pugnacious physicality is a valuable asset, and it's enough to earn him a spot at centre-back, alongside his [ex] Serbian international team-mate Nemanja Vidic. As for the Man Utd man Vidic, he is too important a figure to leave out of my Brazil 2014 team, despite his age (31) and the reality that, in fact, he has retired from international football. But, in keeping with the fantasy nature of this exercise, I have undertaken an imagined meeting with the big man from Belgrade, and have managed to coax him out of his international retirement for a once-off appearance at the 2014 Mundial.

So, there you have the defence; Srna, Vidic, Ivanovic, Kolarov.

In the midfield, there are some difficult decisions to be made. As indicated, the superb Modric is all but impossible to leave out. He is one of the most complete central midfielders in Europe, and his place in this team is, in all honesty, a given. On to the others, then, without dwelling too much on Luka; after all, we already know most there is to know about the little man from Zadar.

Formation is an important factor in the composition of this side and, since I have chosen to go with an attacking 4-3-3, this necessitates the inclusion of two more central midfielders to complement the efforts of Mr Modric. With this in mind, the potential candidates are Zdravko Kuzmanovic, Zvjezdan Misimovic, Ivan Rakitic, Miralem Pjanic, and Niko Kranjcar. There isn't much between these players in terms of their ability; pretty much any combination of two out of this five could do an effective job for the team. However, I've chosen to give starting berths to Roma's Pjanic and the mercurial, yet elegant, Niko Kranjcar. Admittedly, Kranjcar has been slightly off-peak for a season or two, but his class is such that he merits inclusion. He is a player more likely to produce a moment of magic than any of the others and, thus, he is worthy of his place. Pjanic is an exceptional talent. He has made himself integral in a promising AS Roma side, and will continue to develop in the years between now and the beginning of the Brazilian World Cup.

That leaves us, then, with a midfield trio of Modric, Pjanic, and Kranjcar.

On we go, and next up is the forward line. As mentioned, a flamboyantly attacking 4-3-3 has been allocated as this team's starting formation. The focal point of this three up-front is to be Manchester City's Edin Džeko. Somewhat underused by Roberto Mancini, Džeko is a fine player and would do a wonderful job leading the line for "Yugoslavia," with his signature blend of aerial prowess, physicality, and technique. Alongside him are the magical Montenegrins Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic, both of whom are amongst the leading lights when it comes to forward play in Serie A. This duo would be potentially unstoppable, if they could combine well and work off the foil of Džeko's punta and the prompting of Modric and Kranjcar.

Now, could this side win the World Cup? Are these eleven players capable of shunting out the likes of Spain, Germany, Argentina, and Brazil? The answer to this hypothetical question is, of course, extremely difficult to find. Certainly, this team would be amongst the top teams at Brazil in 2014 - on current form. It is perhaps important to highlight the phrase "on current form"; who knows how these eleven players will be performing in two years' time? On the other hand, the same applies to the other top nations.

Probably, the starting elevens of the aforementioned five nations contain more star quality than this "Yugoslavia" XI - this team doesn't contain a Villa, Özil, Messi, or Neymar. It does, however, boast an all-round balance and strength that few other teams in the tournament could match; perhaps only Germany would be as consistently good in all areas from goalkeeper to defence to midfield to attack. For that reason, one might envisage this imaginary eleven going quite far in any tournament that they played.

Could they be World Champions?

I don't see why not.
 
The final line-up:
         
GK: Samir Handanovic

RB: Darijo Srna
CB: Nemanja Vidic
CB: Bane Ivanovic
LB: Aleks Kolarov
 
CM: Miralem Pjanic
CM: Luka Modric
      
AM: Niko Kranjcar
 
LF: Stevan Jovetic
RF: Mirko Vucinic
CF: Edin Dzeko

 
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