Some of the FAI suits in Belgrade this week could learn a thing or two from their Serbian FA counterparts about the art of competing against other codes for elite talent.
The continual argument that the GAA enjoys a dominant influence over soccer is put in context when compared against a nation not even double the size in population but light years ahead of the Irish in terms of youth development.
Not alone are two of their clubs, Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, rated amongst the top 10 academies in Europe for producing players but their international team have dined at the top table in recent years and are not content to feed off crumbs.
Serbia are reigning world champions at U20 level, having beaten Brazil in last year’s final, a feat considered anything but fluky. The Uefa U19 trophy had been lifted in 2013 using many of the same players and, just on Saturday, their current bunch at that level beat France 2-1.
Almost half of the senior squad chosen for tonight’s opening World Cup qualifier against Ireland are 23 years old or under.
All told, Serbia’s run of success resembles that undertaken by Brian Kerr’s underage teams a decade ago. Unlike those triumphs, attributable to Kerr’s legendary tactical nous and a generation of gems like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, the ascent of the ‘Eagles’ occurred by design.
Detached from Montenegro as a football entity in 2006, the Serbs might have lost a powerbase yet utilised the autonomy to paddle their own canoe through the choppy waters of the global game. Domestic factors, such as the popularity of basketball and volleyball, also made it imperative that they get their house in order.
And so they did, investing heavily in constructing that house in Stara Pazova, simultaneously permeating their philosophy to primary school children via their network of coaches.
That philosophy isn’t a copy of the Spanish FA prototype, whom they forged a formal partnership with shortly after gaining independence, rather a customised model gleaned from study trips to the Italian and French camps too. It is uniquely Serbian.
By the time the FAI were just moving into a barren field at Abbotstown back in 2011, out of the ground near Belgrade had emerged their “House of Football”, a dedicated centre of excellence including the hotel Slavoljub Muslin’s squad are residing in the build-up to tonight.
The complex is open to elite talent of all age levels from 11 upwards, portrait pictures within in the corridors of the hothouse’s graduates, such as Liverpool’s 20-year-old Marko Gruji´c, reminding the latest intakes of the horizons reachable.
While the senior Serbia team have endured a fallow period, the angst has been tempered to a degree by the excitement surrounding the generation easing into the fold.
The same cannot be said for Ireland, whose ageing team are in dire need of fresh blood.
Ruud Dokter’s Player Development Plan may have its merits but his struggle to apply the elementary aspects in a uniform manner indicate the slog ahead to gain the type of buy-in Serbia achieved a decade ago. The ramifications feared from the FAI’s litany of false starts seem only to be beginning.
Serbia’s graduates on show tonight:
Andrija Zivkovic (Benfica)
Became the youngest player ever capped by Serbia in 2013 when making his debut at 17 and shone at the U20 World Cup, setting up the winner in the final. Zivkovic rebuffed an approach from Spanish giants Barcelona in the summer to move from Partizan to Benfica, the Portuguese club he’d prefer developing at. Martin O’Neill will be hoping the knock he’s nursing keeps him out tonight.
Marko Gruji´c (Liverpool)
A recent addition to the Premier League, the midfielder was another to enhance his status at last year’s World Cup, influencing Jurgen Klopp to table an invitation to Anfield shortly after his appointment. Conditional to the €7m deal brokered in January was allowing Gruji´c remain at Red Star to complete their title-winning season. Made his league debut against Burnley last month.
Nemanja Maksimovi´c (FC Astana)
Like Gruji´c, Maksimovi´c returned to the senior squad on Saturday having lined out for the U21s in the draw against Italy a day earlier. His height and range of passing has seen him anointed as the successor to Nemanja Matic in the team and he may be handed that role tonight at the Marakana. Already a hero in Belgrade for scoring the goal which won the U20 World Cup last year.
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