The date 11 June 2003 is one fans of Serbia and Montenegro will want to forget. A 2-1 defeat by Azerbaijan all but ended their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying hopes, ended the reign of Dejan Savićević, and was frankly a humiliation.
World Cup hopes
Little more than two years on, everything has changed. Serbia and Montenegro lead FIFA World Cup qualifying Group 7 with two games remaining, ahead of the likes of Spain and Belgium. Indeed, under Savićević's replacement, Ilija Petković, they are yet to lose a competitive game. Until a 1-1 draw with Spain last month the 'Plavi' had not even conceded a goal in their 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Recovery from troubles
So, with victory in Lithuania on Saturday and against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday, Serbia and Montenegro will reach their first major tournament since the then Yugoslavia played at UEFA EURO 2000™. More than that, it would mean everything to a nation whose troubles in recent years are only too well documented.
Serbia and Montenegro is not a rich country and for the people sport is everything. Despite recent successes in basketball and other disciplines, football remains the No1 sport and should qualification be achieved people will speak of little else for six months.
Petković told uefa.com: "Sport is one of the most important things in Serbia and Montenegro. In a difficult period, that I believe is now definitely behind us, sport was a kind of relaxation. Success was badly needed by the people. In football terms we reached the bottom with a defeat by Azerbaijan in June 2003.
"Now we are close. Very close. Our people sense it. When I am out in the city or at the market place doing my grocery shopping or visiting friends, no one is addressing me as an individual, but as national coach. I am very happy and proud because of that.
Qualification for the World Cup would make the nation happy, not for a day or two, but for a longer period."
While Serbia and Montenergo may no longer have international stars akin to Dragan Stojković, Savićević, Predrag Mijatović, Siniša Mihajlović and co, the current team is a strong group of motivated players. They did not begin the group as favourites - Spain had that role and Belgium were also well considered - but last November a 2-0 victory in Brussels changed all perceptions.
Three foreign-based players have been critical to this recovery. The captain, Savo Milošević of CA Osasuna, is just seven appearances away from becoming the first man from the former Yugoslavia to win 100 caps. His experience is combined with that of FC Internazionale Milano midfielder Dejan Stanković, whose eight years in Italy have left him able to deal with any situation he may face.
The third is the team's most marketable player, Mateja Kežman. He scored last month in the win against Lithuania and draw in Spain, but the goals have not always flowed so freely for him at international level. For two years and seven months from April 2002 he drew a blank, despite his fine form for PSV Eindhoven.
'Goal was liberation'
Then came the trip to Belgium, and 59 minutes into the game he made it 2-0. "The goal was a 500kg stone off my shoulder," said Kežman, who has since put a frustrating Chelsea FC spell behind him to hit goalscoring form for Club Atlético de Madrid. "It was a psychological block, nothing else. It is difficult for a striker when he fails to score, as he easily enters into a phase of fear, uncertainty. The goal was liberation and now I have regained my self-confidence."
That goes for the whole side as well. Kežman added: "The team atmosphere is crucial. There is not a bit of envy between us and we more experienced players from foreign clubs are trying to help the younger ones from the domestic league. We never talk about who will play and who will not, we have eliminated jealousy."
Even when trying to dampen the mood, the striker's confidence shines through. He said: "I have been raised to respect everyone and underestimating an opponent can be very damaging. Still, I am also realistic. When I add up these two aspects
I can easily state that we are the better team and that we will gather six points from our last two matches."
Petković too is determined that Serbia and Montenegro will not even need to enter the play-off draw. "It is our duty, our goal and our desire to qualify," the coach said. "Personally, the fact that in 2006 the world would speak about our nation, respect us while they are struggling to pronounce our country's name, means more than anything."
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