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Internationals

Serbia Will Try To Score Its Way Out Of Its Group

Serbia's players cheer in front of their supporters after Serbia's forward Aleksandar Mitrovic scored 0-2 during the UEFA Nations League Group 4 between Norway and Serbia in Oslo on September 27, 2022.
Fredrik Varfjell/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.


I have been convinced for decades that all Serbian players in all sports, either domestically or internationally, either play with a nine-day growth of beard and/or a once-lit cigarette dangling from his (or, to be fair, her) mouth. Everyone is Vlade Divac, and his face has scarred me and my perceptions, even of the Serbian national team for this World Cup. In my world, they spend 90 minutes kicking the hell out of other teams between ankle and kneecap while playing a 9-0-1 formation that seeks the perfect performance, a victory with the scoreline of 0 to negative-1.

This is of course wrong, because Serbia is a better team than that, at least aesthetically. They have scorers, they like to go forward, they are closer to meh when tracking back, and in general are a livelier bunch than my stereotyping would imply. The retirements of veteran defenders Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov allowed head coach Dragan Stojkovic (known by the superior nickname, “Piksi”) to play a more aggressive style, so the Serbs will be fun to watch even when they play Brazil, which is expected to be a hat-blocking in Match 1. If they go deep, it will be because they can score. If they don’t, it will be because they can’t keep the other team from doing it more often.

Who Is Their Main Guy?

Dusan Tadic, the 33-year-old midfielder and facilitator makes everything else work. He wasn’t always the guy, but has worked his way into Stojkovic’s heart. He is a wise old tactical head who will see to it that the team presses upfield and that strikers Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic are at the end of passes in the best places. The only issue with him is that age doohickey, because if he has to come off in a 270-degree afternoon the rest of the kids have to recreate his visions from scratch. Fortunately they have enough other quality passers up front to do that, most notably wings Andrija Zivkovic and Filip Kostic plus midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. But Tadic is the author of what they do and how they do it, so it will take a Qatari cold snap, otherwise known as a 105-degree day, to convince Stojkovic to remove him.

Who Is Their Main Scoring Guy?

Mitrovic, who of all the Serbian players, is best qualified to pull off the Divac unlit-heater look, if that’s how you want to judge him. His years at Fulham have convinced even casual observers that he brings danger, especially if you factor in his occasional temper flares.

He makes Stojkovic’s devotion to attack work because he can finish what Tadic starts, and his work with Vlahovic up front is refreshingly free of rivalry, at least by European attacker standards. Given that the Serbs used to play a desiccated, painful-to-watch style that got them nothing in big competitions, he is a hugely important part of whatever pretenses they might have. In other words, given the defensive shortcomings, he and Vlahovic had better be damned good.

Where’s The Beef?

Which teams or players does Serbia not like? Do Serbia’s players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.

It’s Croatia. It’s always Croatia. Historically, athletically, economically, politically—they are in separate groups (Croatia in F, as in Fuck Off Serbia, and Serbia in G, as in Go To Hell Croatia) for good reason. In fairness, their last public spat happened all the way back in July, so they’re kind of chill right now, but give it time. If their fans happen to share the same part of Doha at the same time, expect to see videos on Sky. The Serbs are also not very chill with Turkey, but since the Turks didn’t make the tournament, this is significantly less relevant. As far as within the side, Tadic is the undisputed leader, so the only way they’ll get snippy with each other is if something goes bad against, say, Cameroon. Mostly, they’re fine with each other, as this is probably the best Serbian side on the best form since they became a standalone country.

Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode

Who is Serbia’s best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?

If you’re looking for the likeliest Ospina/J-Rod model, it’s probably Vlahovic, the 22-year-old who is probably delighted to get away from the struggling Juventus side. His gift for finding the spaces Mitrovic creates make him a potential target for big spenders who would like to gut Juve in their time of difficulty, but he is as much an X-factor as he is a sure thing, especially if Mitrovic decides to groin-shot Alisson on the first Serbian cross of the Brazil match. Vlahovic works far better with Mitrovic beside him, and there is at least a slight possibility that he could fade from view, at least against Brazil. But at his age, he has what tavern-level pseudo-scouts like to call “big upside,” and a creative bent that might make him a breakout figure in the January transfer festival . . . especially if Mitrovic doesn’t accidentally groin-shot him against Cameroon.

David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 1.8

James Rodríguez Mode Probability Score: 2.9

Fun Geographical Fact

Serbia and Switzerland are the only two landlocked countries in the competition, and only three have ever reached the semifinal round (Hungary, Czech Republic, and Austria), none in the last 60 years. Clearly this team needs water, or at least a healthier fishing industry.

Good Flag Or Bad Flag?

Flag of Serbia.

The Serbs have had lots of flags since trying to figure out how not to be Yugoslavia, but they all have the cool two-headed white eagle that is part of the full Slav experience. Why irradiated mutant birds resonate with so much of Southeastern Europe is an issue for another time (or now, if your impatience has bested you), but the U.S. flag could use a double-headed something for a little spice. Maybe a bear, or Bob Odenkirk.

Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?

As most anthems at sporting events are provided mostly to give viewers one last chance to hit the bong before the game starts, the Serbian anthem “God Of Justice” (“Boze pravde”) lasts long enough to complete most lavatorial or food assemblage tasks. The good part might be that the former anthem when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia was “Hey Slavs!” In America, that would be translated as “Yo, Dude.” As for good or bad, the bar is sufficiently low that it lands in the middle, which is to say, “Fine for the Serbs.” Hey, it’s their playlist, not ours.

Notable Moment In World Cup History

That depends on whether you want to give them credit for being part of the old Yugoslav Republic, in which case losing to eventual champion Uruguay in the 1930 semifinal was the first and last great moment. It also depends on whether you want to count the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was actually Serbia and Montenegro, and which escaped the 1998 group stage by beating Iran and the U.S. only to get beaten in extra time by the Dutch in the round of 16, a game highlighted by Predrag Mijatovic blowing a penalty kick after the Serbs and Montenegrins had taken a 1–0 lead, and then Dutch players Edwin van der Sar and Winston Bogarde getting into a tussle, with Van Der Sar saying he was agitated and reacted instinctively because another teammate, Pierre van Hoojidonk had unintentionally choked him in the postgame celebration.

But as Serbia proper, there is only Milan Jovanovic’s goal in a 1–0 win over Germany in 2010 that meant nothing in the greater picture since the Serbs finished last in the group and the Germans finished third. I think the cigarette image bore itself into my head for good in that moment.

How Can They Win The World Cup?

Every other preview provided here comes up with ways that the country in question can indeed win the dingus, but let’s be honest, almost all of them are lies. Serbia is in the same group as Brazil, so the best they can do is second, and everything you’ll need to know comes when they play Switzerland on December 2. Mitrovic will have to score loads to get them that far, and then gravity sets in and one of the heavy favorites clocks our boys there. Sorry, kids, but I’m not paid to jolly you along. Just root for them to play nobly and forward-thinking until the inevitable defeat, probably to the French.

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