Sunday, May 14, 2006

#25: Plavi


Where? Southeastern Europe, Balkan Peninsula, bordering just about every other country around there.

How big? Kind of big for that part of Europe, I guess. It's about the size of Kentucky. Population is about the size of Michigan.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook about Serbia: Well, a few things. This might be the last World Cup that this nation exists. Since 2002, Serbia and Montenegro have been growing apart, and it seems like in 2006-7, either portion can hold a referendum for separation. Another interesting thing is how suffrage is sort of tied to employment - people can vote at 16 if they have a job, otherwise they have to wait until 18.

Geopolitical importance? A decade ago this country spent more time on the front page. Things are still messed up over there, though. The UN continues to administer things in the region of Kosovo. The other big thing is the economic devastation caused by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars. Basically, Serbia's economy is running at a rate about half of what it was in 1990, which is just crazy. The per capita GDP in Serbia and Montenegro is about half of Albania's. Yeah, you read that right. Half of Albania. One way to look at it is by thinking how bad things must've gotten and how destructive Milosevic and his group were. But we could also look optimistically. Serbia is still centrally located in Eastern Europe, and you really can't get to Asia by land without going through Serbia. If the right people are in charge and things ever get sorted out in terms of borders, Serbia could be have a tiger economy within a decade.

Anything fun about Serbia? Ethnic cleansing, wrecked economy, war crime tribunals... what, that's not funny? Well, here's a video of a dude driving a couch in Serbia.

And let's see some soccer.

This national team has a strange history, since this is technically the first time the team has qualified for the World Cup. Before 2003, the side was known as Yugoslavia, sort of. The Serbian team was known as Yugoslavia for 2002 and 1998, and was banned from competing in 1994 due to the wars. In 1990 and before, the team known as Yugoslavia also included players from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of Macedonia (all of which now have their own teams). The Pre-1990 Yugoslavian team qualified 8 times, finishing as well as Semifinalists in the very first World Cup and in 1962, and advancing past the initial stages 6 times. As Post-1990 Yugoslavia, the side qualified in 1998, knocking out the USA in the group and advancing to round 2. In 2002, they failed to qualify.

This Cup's qualifying process saw the Blues drawn in probably the toughest European preliminary group, with Belgium, local rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina, and traditional power Spain. To most observers' suprise, Serbia and Montenegro topped the group and didn't lose a match. They held Spain twice, and won at Lithuania and Belgium. It may have been fortuitous scheduling, as Serbia saw minnows San Marino twice in the first three matches - building a lead they never gave up. Most amazing is how Serbia and Montenegro only conceded one goal throughout the entire qualification process, a record for Europe.

Professional football in Serbia has a long tradition, with Partizan and Red Star Belgrade both solid teams which have had success in European competitions. Many players on the national team have come up through local sides, only to move on to bigger paydays in Italy, Spain and other top European leagues.

When talking about individual players, the place to start is the back line, which only conceded that one goal in qualifying and is known as the "Famous Four". They are Ivica Dragutinovic (Sevilla FC), Goran Gavrancic (Dinamo Kyiv), Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) and Mladen Krstajic (Schalke 04).

One other player to watch is veteran Sasha Milosevic, the all time leading cap earner and scorer in Serbia and Montenegro history. He's spent the last year as a veteran leader for the Osasuna team that surprised many by finishing 4th in Spain's La Liga this year, earning the Pamplona side a spot in the Champions' League next year.

And while the defense is surely impressive, a lot in soccer has to do with luck as well. I've got a feeling that Serbia and Montenegro's luck in preventing goals has about run out. In fact, it may have simply by being drawn in what I think is the toughest group in the tournament - Group C.

They open against the Netherlands in Leipzig. The Dutch fans are among the most excited about this, so expect a very Orange crowd. Vidic is suspended for the opener, so the Famous Four won't be all together to stand up against some of the better offensive talents in the cup. I don't think Serbia loses this match. In fact, I think they open the scoring. Late in the match Vidic's absence affects them, and the Dutch salvage a draw. 1-1

Unfortunately, that late goal, I think, will suffer on the minds of the Serbs. It's a psychological problem - after going so long allowing barely any goals, to give up one late in a game has to be annoying. And the hangover shows against Argentina, who might be the best team in the Cup. Crespo scores in the first 15 minutes, and Riquelme scores from a set spot just outside the box to make it a 2-0 win for Argentina.

The loss throttles Serbia and Montenegro, who have to focus on beating Cote d'Ivoire to have a chance at advancing. Best laid plans... Instead Cote d'Ivoire comes out playing with nothing to lose, and they get an early goal from Didier Drogba. With much ground to make up, the Serbs take off two defenders to push forward. It costs them, when Drogba scores again to go up 2-0. The Serbs get one back with a late penalty kick from Milosevic, but it isn't enough.

One draw and two losses, for one point, 2 goals, and a -3 goal differential. A disappointment, for sure, but in this group disappointments come easy - no gimmes here.

If the World Cup were March Madness, this Serbia and Montenegro team would be... I'm thinking a big conference team that plays great, stifling defense but kind of gets screwed by a tougher seed than they'd probably like and bow out early.

Might Milosevic have taken those pills to give himself a heart attack to avoid seeing his beloved Plavi fail on the pitch in Germany?