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Serbia’s youth players are rapidly taking the country into the spotlight but it’s the Serbia Under-20s win at the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand that has really made everyone sit up and pay attention. After stunning the world to beat Brazil U20s and win their first world title, here are five key players that made this historic Serbia U20 World Cup win possible…
As part of Yugoslavia, Serbia had made two previous appearances at the competition, in Japan in 1979 and in Chile in 1987, winning the latter. But in this first time in the finals as an independent country, the Serbia U20s lifted the title after a gruelling endurance test that saw many of their games go into extra-time.
It was a top-class performance from the entire side, providing a tantalising taste of the future for Serbia. As head coach Veljko Paunović told Serbian news site B92:
“They can get to the top of the world and I can tell you that there are a lot of good players in this generation who will play in the best games in the world over the next 10 years.
“This is the time for this generation to grow up and say farewell to youth football and this is the best way to do it. It is a massive achievement but the essence is how we did it. Not the kind of football where you dominate all the time, but we defended as if our nation’s fate was on the line.”
Serbia U20 World Cup 2015 key youngsters
Despite it being a strong team effort, there were a number of stand-out players in the squad.Here are five names you could be hearing a lot more of in years to come.,,,
Speaking to Fifa.com after the win, 19-year-old goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic said: “I knew we could achieve something great here in New Zealand. It wasn’t a case of realising over the course of the four weeks: ‘Wow, we could become world champions.’ No, I was convinced of it from day one – and never doubted it for a moment.” Undoubtedly it was, in part, due to this confidence that the Serbia Under-20s skipper led his side to triumph.
The Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda) shot-stopper was awarded the Golden Glove after his performance during the competition saw him make 29 saves, many of them top-class, with only four goals conceeded.
Rajkovic was a huge presence for the side throughout but it was his efforts during their 2-1 final win over Brazil that really stood out. Forced into making save, after save, Rajkovic never lost the composure against their impressive opponents to finish the competition with an excellent save rate of 87.8%.
The 18-year-old Partizan Belgrade winger was already courting attention well before the tournament. The youngest player ever to make a senior appearance for the Serbian national side, and the youngest ever Partizan captain at 17 years, 1o months and 18 days, Andrija Živković had a stormer of a 2014/15 season.
In his 16 appearances for his club he scored five goals, provided three assists and put in a strong performance during Partizan’s Europa League run.
Already a player accustomed to huge career landmarks, he secured another at a pivotal moment for the competition when his stunner of a free-kick against Mexico took Serbia beyond the group stages of a FIFA competition for the first time.
It was Živković whose goal gave Serbia the lead four minutes into the semi-final against Mali giving the side a welcome boost after an exhausting run seeing their previous two matches go into extra time and penalties respectively.
An impressive player, confident on the ball, Živković is as strong at setting up goals as he is at scoring them, and after already earning attention from the likes of Valencia and Sevilla, his performance at the U20s has pushed him even further into the much-deserved spotlight.
KRC Genk Central midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić is a strong and imposing presence (literally, he’s 6’3″) going forward for the Serbia Under-20s. Alongside the dream partnership of Živković and Nemanja Maksimović, the classy and creative player put in a superb shift during the competition.
Winner of the Bronze Ball (silver and gold went to Danilo and Adama Traore respectively), Spain-born Milinkovic used the tournament to show off his quickfire pace, skill in the air and tackling prowess while causing opposition all sorts of problems.
An intelligent player, the 20-year-old found the net twice and made a number of significant threats in the penalty box. Under contract with Genk until 2019, and making 24 appearances last season (scoring five goals), it won’t be long until we see more of him.
After bursting onto the scene with an outstanding performance at the 2013 UEFA Under-19 European Championships, former Crvena Zvezda youngster Nemanja Maksimović became an integral part of the Serbian international youth set-up.
But after scoring arguably the most important goal of the tournament, the extra-time 118th minute winner against Brazil in the final, Maksimović has been the name on everyone’s lips.
After a one-on-one with Brazil ‘keeper Jean, Maksimović made history by slotting the ball coolly into the net to secure Serbia their first international title as an independent nation. Currently plying his trade at FC Astana in the Kazakhstan Premier League, his overall performance should see him courting attention from bigger clubs in Europe.
17-year-old Partizan striker Ivan Šaponjić made two pivotal goals during the competition – an injury-time equaliser against Hungary in the last 16 to keep Serbia in the game that they eventually won 2-1, and the winner against Mali in the first half of extra-time in their quarter-final clash.
Šaponjić made just four appearances for his club last season, scoring in each game to make it four goals in four, and after well-and-truly announcing himself at the Under-20 World Cup it shouldn’t be long before we start to see him make more first team appearances.