Serbia's FIFA U-20 World Cup win and participation in the U21 EURO are just two of their recent successes — UEFA.com looks at the rise and rise of the country's youth teams.
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With a little over seven million inhabitants, Serbia cannot be considered to have one of Europe's largest pools of football talent. However, its youth teams are regulars at UEFA final tournaments and the 'Eaglets' can now be hailed world champions following their U-20 success in New Zealand last Saturday.
This comes after a string of memorable achievements: the U19 team won the European title in 2013 and have reached the semis three times in recent tournaments. The U21 vintage finished runners-up in 2007 and reached the 2009 final tournament before clinching a place in the Czech Republic.
So, what is their secret?
Serbia was always a breeding ground for excellent footballers. Many still remember the feats of the likes of Dragan Džajić or Dragan 'Piksi' Stojković in the colours of Yugoslavia.
With the dissolution of the country, however, the beautiful game proved less attractive to some. In the last decade, football was — surprisingly — only the fourth-most popular sport, with more youngsters opting for basketball, volleyball and tennis. The Football Association of Serbia (FSS) responded with a nationwide campaign, 'My school — my team'. It reintroduced football competitions for children in elementary schools and has slowly but surely spawned a steady stream of talent.
The FSS then carefully catalogued and gradually implemented best practices from traditional footballing powers. In 2007, they signed a protocol with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) – which features regular youth-team friendlies and exchanges between referees and medical staff – while also closely following developments at the revered Italian and French academies at Coverciano and Clairefontaine respectively.
The result was the introduction of 'The House of Football' in Stara Pazova in 2011, an ultra-modern facility featuring seven pitches, a sports hall and a hotel. The complex is constantly being used by Serbia's national teams, which start as early as the U11 age category. The complex allows the FSS to organise and host regular international games and two highly competitive tournaments with age-appropriate teams mainly from the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, but also from the rest of Europe.
The FSS also has a lot of 'in-between' teams, such as U16s and U18s. The purpose is to give each generation of players the head start of a full year's worth of matches and training before they begin their qualifying journey in official UEFA competitions, such as the U17s and U19s. UEFA coaching programmes, meanwhile, have helped a lot in educating and selecting coaches who are able to work with their respective national teams continuously. Veljko Paunović, the U-20 World Cup-winning coach, and Radovan Ćurčić, the current senior national team coach, have both emerged through this process.
"It was the right decision to invest heavily in the youth programmes," Ćurčić, who led the current U21 team to the finals in the Czech Republic before moving to the senior side, told UEFA.com. "We still cannot compare to the biggest nations, but Stara Pazova has given us the possibility to work with all the amazing talent we have, and to educate coaches. There are a lot of people involved, and there is a lot of enthusiasm."
There is still room for improvement, though, especially in infrastructure. The FSS realises that in order to produce top players, they need to have proper conditions. With the help of UEFA's HatTrick programme and local authorities, 12 state-of-the-art pitches with artificial turf have been constructed across the country. The federation will supervise and maintain them, but their purpose is to serve the training and competitive needs of local clubs.
It is from those pitches that the successors to those who paraded triumphantly through the streets of Belgrade on Monday will come. The crowning moment of the jubilant scenes in the Serbian capital was when the U20 squad gave their compatriots a glimpse of the trophy. Given the forward strides taken in their youth football development, one wonders not if, but when more silverware will come Serbia's way.