The Football Association of Serbia is reaping the rewards of its national training centre, opened in 2009, which was realised with the help of the UEFA HatTrick programme.
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When Serbia won the UEFA European Under-19 Championship for the first time in August, the result may have surprised some but it was anything but a fluke.
In fact, the victory achieved by Ljubinko Drulović's team in Lithuania was several years in the making – its foundations laid with the start of work on the Football Association of Serbia (FSS) national training centre in 2009. When the facility, located in Stara Pazova, was inaugurated in May 2011, FSS president Tomislav Karadžić called it a signpost to a "great future" for Serbian football. It also stands as a monument to UEFA's close relationship with its 54 European national associations, considering how the governing body helped fund the Stara Pazova development through its HatTrick assistance programme.
"With the great help of the Serbian government, the ministry of sport, the Stara Pazova municipality, UEFA and FIFA, and of course thanks to our efforts and engagement, we have one of the most modern, beautiful and practical football centres in Europe," Mr Karadžić said.
Located 30km outside Belgrade, spanning 120,000 square metres and equipped with four grass pitches, one artificial pitch and one covered training surface, the complex caters for all of Serbia's national football teams. It hosts get-togethers and preparatory matches for the older sides and official fixtures and qualifying mini-tournaments for the younger categories – as well as training camps, soccer schools and seminars.
Additionally, it operates as a further education centre for coaches, referees and sports science practitioners and, given the on-site expertise, as a rehabilitation centre for players recovering from injury. As such, the intention is for Stara Pazova to benefit, in some tangible or even cascading way, the more than 2,000 registered clubs and 130,000 registered players in the Balkan country.
"Our ultimate goal is to take care of Serbian football – now and in the future," said FSS general secretary Zoran Laković. "Everyone involved in football finally has the ideal conditions in which to work and improve."
To make the facility profitable, its versatility extends to other sports like basketball, volleyball, handball and athletics. "It is now not only the home of Serbian football, but of Serbian sport in general," added Laković. And because it is multifunctional, the centre not only delivers as a hub for sporting excellence and an outstanding community resource; it also turns a profit.
Among its many attractions, the well-appointed complex features a 3,000-seat stand, conference rooms, an accommodation block and a multi-use sports hall, plus tennis courts and a swimming pool. As director of the site Slobodan Pejović explains, there is also a belief that the venue will inspire the pursuit of high standards by the Serbian football family. "I think its construction has encouraged the national association to be among the [top] five to six teams," Pejović said.
Savo Milosević, director of all Serbian national sides, already attributes the U19s' European conquest to the premises, saying the success was "directly linked to the infrastructure". He added: "We had practically everything we needed to prepare the team properly."
If Stara Pazova has proved a peak achievement by the FSS, Pejović remembers how the association, when stuck in the foothills, received a crucial helping hand from UEFA. "Basically, we at the FSS believe that if it wasn't for the help of UEFA, we would not have entered this project. If it wasn't for UEFA, we would not have initiated the work."
UEFA's investment in the building project comes through its HatTrick programme, which aids Europe's national associations. Igor Janković, head of grassroots at the FSS, emphasised how vital UEFA's contribution was – and continues to be. "UEFA is helping us a lot in achieving different goals, with schemes like HatTrick supporting us in improving our infrastructure," he said. "We are now at the stage of finishing a new floodlit stadium within the technical centre which will enable us to play international games up to U21 level."
All that is allowing Laković to look forward with great optimism, with the FSS general secretary concluding: "We have reinvigorated the footballing potential of our nation, grown the numbers taking part in sport and improved conditions for future development."