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Could U-20 World Cup win mean lift-off for Serbia?

Serbia's senior side are not having the best of times but the sight of thousands in Belgrade celebrating their FIFA U-20 World Cup success suggests the future is bright.

Serbia celebrate after winning the 2015 U-20 World Cup
Serbia celebrate after winning the 2015 U-20 World Cup ©Getty Images

The sporting dream goes on for Serbia: Novak Djoković's success in tennis, titles in basketball, handball, water polo and volleyball. Yet football has always been No1 in the country so the fact that Serbia has now added FIFA U-20 World Cup winners to that list is a huge step.

It all started in 2013 with the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Lithuania where Serbia won their first title as an independent country. Even if we look more broadly at the history of Yugoslavia, that big country only won three international football tournaments: the Olympics in 1960, the first UEFA U23 European Championship in 1978 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1987.

The likes of Aleksandar Mitrović and Predrag Rajković moved into the senior set-up after 2013 but new players emerged and Serbia – by now under Veljko Paunović – made a decent fist of their U19 title defence last summer. They were unfortunate to have their path blocked by a semi-final penalty shoot-out.

Paunović kept the team together and set a new goal: to become world champions. "We must be the best even when it is hardest," he said. "God always gives the hardest job to his best students. We are ready for our mission." They sure were. On Saturday in Auckland, a country of eight million people won in extra time against mighty Brazil – population: 200 million.

Maksimović (C) after his winner
Maksimović (C) after his winner©Getty Images

May the good times roll. Serbia face the Czech Republic on Saturday evening at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, with a semi-final spot and a place at next summer's Olympics the minimum requirement. It has been a challenging period, with UEFA EURO 2016 qualifiers, the U21s and U-20 World Cup running simultaneously.

The senior side have struggled to match their younger counterparts' success of late. A team including Branislav Ivanović, Nemanja Matić and Aleksandar Kolarov are bottom of UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying Group I after mustering one point from five games, with hopes of a trip to France next summer fading fast. Better times surely lie ahead.

Serbia's greatest weapon has always been collective spirit but over the next few years the names of Sergej Milinković-Savić, Nemanja Maksimović, Andrija Živković and Predrag Rajković will become known throughout Europe. They are already known in their homeland, with seemingly half of Belgrade taking to the capital's streets.

The celebrations have just started and on Monday it will be the main event. Belgrade's city hall has staged many triumphant sporting homecomings over the years but footballers have never before graced its terrace. That is about to change – Serbian football already has.