World Cup: Furor Yugoslavica

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.

Play on.

12 thoughts on “World Cup: Furor Yugoslavica

  1. Maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but I would absolutely love to see a Croatia v. Serbia seminfinal unleashed upon Ordnung-loving Germany. Although, considering that there’s a 200% chance of fatalities on that night, the morally correct thing to do would be not to allow it at all.

  2. While the WC is still not a major sporting event in the United States, for the first time every game will be shown on American television, mostly on ESPN and ESPN2, with a few on ABC.

  3. Just thought you might be interested in this: BusinessWeek Online is running a special series of articles on the World Cup; they’ve pretty much covered every aspect. Let me know what you think!

    Best regards,

    David Kaplan–+world+cup

    JUNE 5, 2006
    World Cup
    By Steve Jacobs
    Germany’s Soccer Extravaganza
    The World Cup tourney will pump a bonanza into the Continent’s strongest economy — but the security challenges are daunting
    After 32 years away, the World Cup has come back to Germany. Starting in Munich on June 9, the national teams of 32 separate countries will battle it out for the global soccer championship over the space of 64 matches. One long soccer-filled month later, the tournament will end on July 9 in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, where the two finalists will play one last match in the hopes of earning the prized trophy.

    The last time the World Cup came to Germany, it was 1974 and the country was split in two: the Federal Republic of Germany to the west, and the Communist Democratic Republic of Germany to the east. As a result, this summer’s World Cup takes on increased significance; it’s the first time Germany hosts an international sporting event of this magnitude as a unified nation.

    In addition to its historical import, this World Cup could do wonders for the German economy, which is already on the upswing, breaking away as the clear leader in Continental Europe. ( Thirty-one foreign teams will be competing, and with them they will bring a flood of foreign capital. Coca-Cola (KO ), Nike (NKE ), and Mastercard (MA ) are just three of the major American companies spending heavily to make sure their names get seen in Germany this month. ( The amount of global exposure offered by this event attracts a rush of advertising dollars, which can only spell growth to a quickly strengthening economy.

    TOURIST DOLLARS. Foreign money also will arrive in the form of foreign people. Within the next few days, Germany will fill up with folks from all over the globe: soccer fans, sports journalists, and people just looking for a month-long party. This temporary population influx promises an immense boost to the service and tourist industries of all 12 of the host cities (link to slide show). German officials are clearly looking for a return on the massive infrastructure investments they’ve made in anticipation of the games — including upwards of $1.8 billion on stadiums alone.

    This investment underlines the fact that hosting the World Cup implies a certain amount of risk — and not all of it financial. In 1998, when the tourney took place in France, Belgian authorities thwarted a potential attack by Algerian militants. So the U.S. State Dept. is not without precedent in warning about the potential for an Al Qaeda attack. To minimize the possibility of a terrorist strike, the World Cup organizers and the German government have taken extensive security measures, deploying selective border checks, a fleet of NATO surveillance aircraft, a special international World Cup security and intelligence task force, and a special 24-hour security detail for “at-risk” teams such as England and the U.S.

    STOP SCALPING. A less frightening, but no less real, threat is that of soccer hooligans: fans who use sporting events as an excuse to engage in violent behavior. To prevent hooliganism, organizers are using a new system requiring that each ticket be registered in the name of the ticketholder, who must then present I.D. upon his/her arrival at the game. This measure prevents known troublemakers from gaining access to the stadiums — and also should stop ticket scalping dead in its tracks. Outside the stadiums, there will be an increased police presence, as well as a streamlined justice system, which will potentially process, try, and jail offenders within hours of their apprehension.

    As overwhelming as all of these security measures may seem, the hosts of the Cup are making an equal effort to insure that precautions don’t put a damper on the fun. Visitors to Germany this month will find a vibrant party atmosphere, and each of the host cities has something different to offer. No matter where you go, however, you’ll find an abundance of fine German beer and sausage. And, of course, the world’s best football. Click here for the slide show


    Jacobs is an intern in BusinessWeek’s Paris bureau

  4. Hi Michael,

    It’s hard to say what would happen if Croatia and Serbia met. They’ve run into each other at international events before. Sometimes, there’s violence; other times, teams and fans alike behave with perfect dignity.

    That said, I’m sure the Germans would absolutely swamp the event with _Polizei_.

    (Random note: a few years ago, I attended a Crvena Zvezda match in Belgrade. Whoa. Now /that/ stadium had security… crude, but it looked very effective. I especially liked the moat-and-hose combo.)

    Doug M.

  5. Maybe football’s what they are talking about when they say the collapse was engineered because Europe was afraid of the might of a combined Yugoslavia.

  6. Disturbing thought.
    Germany was in favor because there football is more important than Eurovision and France opposed it for the reversed reason.

  7. UK against, football certainly more important than Eurovision.

    Anyway, let’s not forget Denmark, and how genocidal warfare fixed it for them to win a major football tournament.

  8. yah, the what-ifs surrounding Yugoslav football in the 1990s are irresistible. Just imagine the mouthwatering prospect of a Yugoslav team comprising, inter alia, Pedrag Mijatovic, Alen Boksic, Sinisa Mihjailovic, Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Zvinmir Boban, Dejan Savicevic, Dragan Stojkovic, Vladimir Jugovic, Robert jarni et al. i.e. the Yugoslav and Croatian squads at WC’98.

    Unfortunately, a fiery encounter between Red Star Belgrade and Zagreb in 1991 is regarded as one of the flashpoints of the Balkans mess.

  9. I have this recurring thought that had Boban been injured before that infamous match in May 1990, he wouldn’t have kicked a policeman, wouldn’t have been suspended from the national team, he would have then scored his penalty which would have brought Yugoslavia to the semis, and then maybe, maybe, maybe they could have won the thing. The peoples of Yugoslavia would have been brought together as never before, defying their evil politicians. And they would all live happily ever after. The End.

  10. It’s a lovely thought, and I considered putting it in my post.

    But I can’t make myself believe it. There’d be three days of euphoria, and then the politicians would go back to their plotting, and the people would allow themselves to be led.

    Doug M.

  11. And of course the final success of Yugoslavia as it was all crumbling was Red Stars European Champions success in Bari back in 91.

    A Romanian (albeit Serbianised name at the time) a couple of Croats, Mg’s, Macedonian all in the squad. Those were the days! I tried to persuade myself it mattered to the survival of Yugoslavia but of course it didnt.

  12. bganon wrote: “A Romanian (albeit Serbianised name at the time)”…

    Hm. You are talking about Miodrag Belodedić, right? If so, he is Serb from Romania and that’s his real name. He didn’t ‘serbianise’ his name — he fled Chaushesku’s Romania to Serbia in 1987-8…

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