"A team like ours could have done better," shrugged Savo Milošević as he looked back on his five-goal salvo in Yugoslavia's torrid UEFA EURO 2000 campaign.
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Savo Milošević ended up as joint-top marksman at UEFA EURO 2000 with five goals although his Yugoslavia side did not necessarily enjoy a glittering tournament and were overwhelmed by co-hosts the Netherlands in the last eight.
The feeling that Yugoslavia should have achieved more has haunted him since. "A team like ours could have done better," he told UEFA.com. "Predrag Mijatović, Dragan Stojković, Vladimir Jugović, Siniša Mihajlović, Dejan Stanković, Slaviša Jokanović, Miroslav Djukić, Darko Kovačević, Dejan Govedarica, Ljubinko Drulović ... that was such a brilliant team."
Having scored at a rate of well over a goal a game at Partizan, Milošević went abroad aged 21 to play for Aston Villa – where he was the club's record signing – and registered in their 1995/96 League Cup final success. The forward moved on to Real Zaragoza in 1998, again netting prodigiously, setting the stage for him to sparkle at the finals in the Low Countries.
"EURO 2000 meant a lot – it was really something special for me," he remembered. "That summer I took a big step forward." It was a step that brought big consquences – his switch to Parma for an estimated €25m made him one of summer 2000's most-expensive transfers, though he was never quite as prolific in Italy as in Spain, where he returned for spells at Zaragoza, Espanyol, Celta and Osasuna before retiring in 2008 after a last hurrah in Russia with Rubin Kazan.
Having edged out Croatia in qualifying, Yugoslavia faced another former Yugoslav republic, Slovenia, in their first game at UEFA EURO 2000. After an hour in Charleroi, they trailed 3-0 having had Siniša Mihajlović sent off. At that point, Milošević came on for Darko Kovačević and notched twice either side of a goal for Ljubinko Drulović.
"That was a miracle and a phenomenal comeback," he recalled. "Drulović set up my goals – I just scored them. In the space of six minutes we brought it back to 3-3. We had them, we had chances to win it."
Taste for drama
Milošević struck again in their next fixture – a 1-0 victory over Norway – which Yugoslavia again finished with ten men, Mateja Kežman dismissed late on. On matchday three, Slaviša Jokanović was red-carded with Yugoslavia leading Spain 3-2, before two added-time goals handed Vujadin Boškov's team a 4-3 defeat. "That match against Spain was one we simply couldn't afford to lose, but something just happened," Milošević said. " We did not know at that point whether we were still in the competition."
As it was, they scraped through on goals scored, though they may have wished they hadn't. Milošević got his fifth goal of the finals in the Rotterdam quarter-final against the Netherlands, yet by then his country were 6-0 down and on the way out. "They punished every single mistake we made," Milošević lamented.
Milošević retired from international football after the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and was – for a time – his nation's most-capped player with 102 appearances. Now vice-president of the Football Association of Serbia (FSS) and director of the senior national team, his EURO experience was not perfect – indeed, Yugoslavia's record of 13 goals conceded is the highest of any side at a EURO finals – yet being there was the key.
"Sometimes memories are positive and sometimes you are disappointed, but honestly the most important thing is to be at big tournaments like the EURO," he said. "They are every player's dream. Goals, victories and happiness are what everyone wants – and needs. I am only sorry that EURO 2000 was my only one with the national team."