Balkan Babes: The Rebirth of Football in the Former Yugoslav Republics

Marko Pjaca.jpg

BY JOE DONNOHUE  (@JOE_DONNOHUE27)

Before its dissolution in 1992, Yugoslavia was a footballing powerhouse. They made eight World Cup Finals appearances, reaching the semi-finals on two occasions. The now-dissolved nation also finished runners-up in the European Championships in 1960 and 1968, as well as winning the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987, which would have formed the core of a formidable international side in the 1990s had it remained a united national team. Instead, it featured solely Serbian and Montenegrin players.


At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, one of Yugoslavia’s last international competitions and their final one as a united nation, their squad boasted players who plied their trades at the likes of Sporting Clube de Portugal, Partizan Belgrade, Paris Saint-Germain and Sampdoria. Yet two years later, that side was broken up as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro and Macedonia all formed their respective, independent states and Yugoslavia failed to exist in its united form.

 
The result on the footballing climate in the region was dark as ethnic and religious wars ensued. Combined with political instability, football became a relative insignificance. Many people fled the area for destinations across Europe, for richer and more developed countries both politically and economically such as Switzerland and much of Scandinavia. This in turn caused an influx of Balkan-born footballing talents departing the region as children, only to go on to feature for different international sides.

 

The former Communist state helped develop several young talents during its short history, one of which being Croatian legend Davor Šuker who went on to score 45 international goals for Croatia and play for Real Madrid. As a youngster, Šuker impressed at NK Osijek and Dinamo Zagreb before sealing his move to La Liga aged just 23 due to the ensuing wars.


However, modern day Balkan players are following in the footsteps of the former Yugoslav stars, in part due to the relative peace that has been observed in the region since the mid-1990s. A new crop of Serbian, Croatian and other Balkan talents have seen themselves make their way onto the footballing scene in Europe’s top leagues over the past number of seasons. Trailblazers such as Luka Modric have influenced a younger generation of players from former Yugoslav republics and inspired them to venture into the biggest leagues in Europe.

One such talent is Andrija Živković, a 20-year old winger recently signed by SL Benfica, giants of the Portuguese Primeira Liga. He is an exciting prospect for the Serbian national team to develop in the coming years, having already made five full international appearances after featuring at every youth level for Serbia since 2011. Živković was a pivotal member of the Partizan Belgrade side that helped secure the Serbian Super League and Domestic cup in consecutive seasons, but arguably his biggest achievement in his short career to date has been the 2015 U-20 World Cup triumph with Serbia. 


Another member of the squad that lifted the trophy for the first time since the Yugoslavia squad of 1987 was Nemanja Maksimović; a player who has been extensively scouted by many top European clubs such as Olympique Lyonnais and AC Milan. Maksimović is currently playing a leading role in Kazakhstan with FC Astana as a defensive playmaker however his versatility is one of his key traits as he can be deployed across the centre of midfield in a variety of roles. Maksimović has Champions League experience with the Kazakh club and fared relatively well, going unbeaten at home in the 2015-16 group stages against Atlético Madrid, SL Benfica and Galatasaray SK.


An interesting development in the Serbian’s career could be on the horizon as his Astana contract expires in the summer of 2017, which would make him a free agent, and a whole host of clubs will undoubtedly be looking to hire his services on a long-term deal as he is a raw talent with grit and determination as well as possessing unabated natural skill. 


Both Živković and Maksimović have been capped by Serbia at full international level, and look set to feature in the set-up for many years to come should they continue their development at top European clubs.

 

Croatia also established itself as an independent country in 1991 after breaking away from Yugoslavia and embarked on a golden generation of footballing success in the late 1990s, spearheaded by the legendary Šuker. Third place at the 1998 FIFA World Cup was a tremendous finish for a newly-conceived country making their first appearance at a World Cup Finals. Much of the Croatia side that surprised many during the 1990s was built upon a core of ex-Yugoslav players who were previously affiliated to the failed state.

  
It is perhaps best summed up by saying that today, there is a rise of a new golden generation happening in Croatian football. While the league system in Croatia, as well as in many Balkan countries has begun to decline due to corruption and a lack of funding, the national side has benefitted from superior coaching and tuition at Europe’s top clubs. Croatia’s record in 2016 is an almost impeccable one, having lost just a single fixture, which came at the European Championships to eventual winners Portugal after extra-time, following a 2-1 victory over previous holders Spain. They have won three out of four of their World Cup 2018 qualifying matches so far and are on course to make an appearance at yet another major tournament. Much of this can be attributed to the arrival of several young talents blossoming in the national set-up having benefitted from youth coaching in Germany, Spain and Italy. 

Young centre-back Tin Jedvaj is just 20-years old and has already featured in over 50 matches for Bayer Leverkusen. He looks set to add to his five international caps and is poised to lead the national side in future, marshalling the back-line for Croatia just as he has done regularly for Leverkusen over the past few seasons. 


One of the most exciting talents in Croatian football at present however, is Alen Halilović, a slight-framed attacking midfielder formerly of Dinamo Zagreb and FC Barcelona. Now in a permanent role at Hamburger SV in the Bundesliga, Halilović is finding his feet. The 20-year old featured sporadically at last summer’s European Championships after an impressively consistent season on loan at Sporting Gijón in La Liga. Having played at every youth team for Croatia from U14 level, Halilović is well accustomed to the ethos of the Croatian way of playing and has already racked up nine senior caps to date. Barcelona inserted a €10 million buy-back clause in Halilović’s sale to Hamburg, indicating that the world’s leader in youth development can see obvious potential in the Croatian. 

Croatia’s star man is another youngster Mateo Kovačić, the 22-year old has Inter Milan and Real Madrid as his past and current employers respectively, which is quite an achievement and recognition of ability at such a young age. Kovačić’s family had fled the Balkan region prior to his birth and subsequently the Croatian national side’s deep-lying playmaker was born in Austria, yet he chose to represent his parents’ country of origin. The Real Madrid midfielder already has 32 senior caps and will certainly add to that in future as he is a stalwart in that system. It is likely that he will take on the mantle left behind by Luka Modrić when he retires from international duty.


Many more Balkan players are playing regularly in leagues such as the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A, than ever before. Effective scouting and procurement of young players from the Balkan region has become a common theme for many Italian clubs who give these youngsters a chance to showcase their talents. Fiorentina for example, scout Croatia exhaustively and Napoli are another club who have several Balkan players on their books. Even Juventus have established and exciting Balkan prospects in Miralem Pjanić and Marko Pjaca playing a key role in the first team.   

Balkan nations – the larger and more competitive Serbia and Croatia in particular – still have multiple obstacles in their path as they try and challenge football’s established elites. Weak leagues, corruption and elements of hooligan trouble continue to have a negative impact on not only their national team performance, but on the way their football is perceived globally. However, by continuing to develop elite talent – even if their national league cannot give them a platform and they must move overseas – they can compete.