Yugoslavia used to have a hell of a team. They were regular visitors to the World Cup, advancing to the elimination rounds more often than not. They went to the quarter finals in 1990, and there are plenty of Serbs and Croats who will tell you that they actually came within a whisker of winning it all. They got knocked out by a wildly erratic and penalty-prone Argentine team that went on to lose the final against Germany. If they’d beaten Argentina… well, you have to believe that the Yugoslavs could have gone on to beat both Italy and Germany. This seems unlikely, especially given that Germany had whipped them 4-1 a couple of weeks earlier. But 1990 was a deeply strange year, so who knows.
Yugoslav football was on a rising arc all through the 1980s; rising interest in the sport, plus rigorous state-sponsored training programs, produced a “golden generation” of players starting around 1985. Unfortunately, Yugoslavia imploded just as these guys were reaching their peak. They ended up scattered among half a dozen different countries, with several of the best trapped behind sanction walls and unable to compete in international play. If the country had stayed together, the Yugoslav team would surely have been a serious contender in ’94, ’98, and ’02.
Anyway. Yugoslavia used to be quite something. How are the successor states likely to fare?
Well, both Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro are in the Cup. Not for the first time, of course. Serbia has appeared once before (in its incarnation as Milosevic’s rump Yugoslavia), and Croatia twice. Croatia actually went to the semifinals in 1998, before falling to France 2-1. They went on to beat the Netherlands for the third place spot. (There are Croats who will tell you they could have gone all the way, but I don’t believe that for a moment. Remember 1998? France’s annus mirabilis; les bleus were just unstoppable that year.)
Serbia’s team is Plavi, “The Blues”. (One day someone will explain to me why there are so damn many “Blues” in international football: France, Serbia, Japan…). They has the dubious distinction of being the first WC side ever to represent a country that no longer exists. Really, what next? The USSR? Austria-Hungary? Anyway, Serbia-Montenegro broke up last month, so from now on Serbia and Montenegro will field two separate teams, but meanwhile S&M is still in it.
Plavi might be the most weirdly lopsided team in the cup. They have what may well be the best defense on the planet. It has allowed just a single goal in their last 10 games, which is pretty damn amazing. Beyond that… well, they have Savo Milosevic (no relation), a very good center forward. And that’s basically it.
I’m no punter, but I don’t think this is going to carry them through. To make matters worse, they’re in Group C, with Argentina, the Netherlands, and the Ivory Coast. . Some are calling this a “Group of Death”, but I have trouble seeing it… I see two very good teams, one okay team, and one freak. So, color me skeptical. If they advance, I’ll be pleased for my friends in Belgrade, but more than a little surprised.
Meanwhile, the Croats have a perfectly good all-around team: Vatreni, “The Fiery Ones”. Unfortunately, they’re in the same group with Brazil. This means they’ll be in a furious dogfight with Japan and Australia for the not-Brazil spot. I give them evenish odds of advancing, but what do I know?
In theory, Croatia could meet Serbia-Montenegro in the quarterfinals. That would be interesting! But I very much doubt we’ll see it.
One thing I can predict for certain: if either team advances, the shopkeepers of central Belgrade or Zagreb will have a bad night. One difference between Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia: back in the Communist days, celebrations were relatively restrained. Nowadays, happy football fans tend to riot in the city center. Cops will intervene to prevent large-scale arson and chaos, but will shrug at broken windows, flaming trash cans, and minor looting.
One other Eastern European team to watch: Ukraine. I don’t quite understand what’s going on there, but these guys arrived at the Cup for the first time ever after eliminating Greece and Denmark. Bizarre fluke, or new sun rising? They play Spain next Wednesday, so we should know soon enough.
Finally, I dont’ usually talk up my own blog. But my co-blogger Carlos, an authentic American voice, brings a Wisconsin perspective to this whole football thing.