Photo: Getty

Serbia’s proud history of cultivating the talents of exceptional soccer players is only surpassed by their inglorious history of choking in embarrassing fashion once those exceptional Serbs all get together with the national team. This Serbian team is even more stacked than usual. Hopefully that talent will finally allow Serbia to overcome their natural tendency toward blowing it.

But at least Serbia got this far. Qualifying for major tournaments isn’t exactly a specialty of Serbia’s. Back in the day, when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, the team that represented the Serbs was pretty good. (Which shouldn’t be surprising. Imagine the superteam you could come up with today if you could pluck all the best Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians and Herzegovinians, and Montenegrins and put them on one team.) Under the Yugoslavia name, the team made the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals three times before the various constituent states of Yugoslavia started gaining independence in the early 90s.

Since the Serbia national team became more or less what it is today—doing business together with Montenegro starting with Euro 1996, then going solo starting with Euro 2008—Serbia’s soccer history has been defined by failure. They only qualified for the Euros once, missed out on two of five World Cups, and in the three they did make it to they only advanced to the group stage a single time. A sorry record for a country that usually has more than a handful of really good players.

To be fair to Serbia, the national team’s stumbles have at times coincided with some pretty serious political turmoil back home. It’s probably a little tough to focus on soccer—even a World Cup, even when your team is pretty good—when the two nations that make up your national team decide to split ways only days before the start of the tournament, as was the case when Serbia and Montenegro divorced right before the start of the 2006 World Cup. The political leaders of the newly separated countries decided then to allow the combined national team to carry on representing the defunct national entity, probably in hopes that the team they’d sent to Germany would do them proud. Instead, Serbia and Montenegro lost all three of their group stage matches, including one 6-0 beatdown at the hands of Argentina. (Fun fact: that 6-0 defeat was the one and only Lionel Messi’s first World Cup match. After coming off the bench, Messi assisted one goal and scored another.)

Things haven’t gotten much better from there. Serbia took a great team to South Africa in the 2010 World Cup but finished last in their group. They didn’t even qualify for the 2014 edition. Now Serbia are once again back in the big leagues, once again coming into a World Cup with a super talented squad in a tough but manageable group, and trying to ensure this tournament run doesn’t end like the past few have. If Serbia live down to their reputation and fail to beat out Switzerland or Costa Rica for the second spot in Group E, they’ll only have themselves to blame.

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Roster

Goalkeepers: Vladimir Stojković (Partizan), Predrag Rajković (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Marko Dmitrović (Eibar)

Defenders: Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Duško Tošić (Guangzhou R&F), Uroš Spajić (Krasnodar), Branislav Ivanović (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), Miloš Veljković (Werder Bremen), Milan Rodić (Red Star Belgrade), Nikola Milenković (Fiorentina)

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Midfielder: Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace), Andrija Živković (Benfica), Dušan Tadić (Southampton), Marko Grujić (Liverpool), Filip Kostić (Hamburger), Nemanja Radonjić (Red Star Belgrade), Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio), Nemanja Matić (Manchester United), Adem Ljajić (Torino)

Forwards: Aleksandar Prijović (PAOK), Aleksandar Mitrović (Newcastle), Luka Jović (Eintracht Frankfurt)

Nickname

Орлови (The Eagles)

FIFA Ranking

34

Manager

Mladen Krstajić

Player to Watch

Sergej Milinković-Savić

Sometimes player comparisons can be superficial and stifling. Other times, they feel so obviously right that it’s hard to watch one player without thinking about his doppelgänger. The popular Sergej Milinković-Savić-Paul Pogba comp is one of the second kind.

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Milinković-Savić has so much Pogba in his game. You can see it in their towering figures (both players are 6-foot-3), in their strength on the ball, in their surprising speed and agility for their size, in the way they both manipulate the ball at their feet like a yo-yo on a string, in their powerful runs through the middle of the pitch, in their predilection for the perfectly chipped through ball, in their proficiency with headers, and especially in the screamers they score with their rocket-powered right feet. Milinković-Savić is to Lazio and Serie A generally as Pogba was to Juventus and Serie A back when he was still there: both are/were their team’s and league’s most destructive central midfield forces and make/made sweat pour from the foreheads of panicked domestic rivals. Matching that sweat is all the saliva dripping from the big foreign teams’ mouths while they consider the prospect of getting their hands on such a talent.

The 23-year-old Serb will be his national team’s main creative force at the World Cup. Serbia have lots of creative specialists and intelligent runners, so look for Milinković-Savić to drop dimes over and through the defense regularly. This guy is the next big thing in true center midfielders, and he has all the individual tools and surrounding teammates to make this World Cup his official coming out party.

How They Play

If Serbia are to live up to their potential in this tournament, they’ll need to get their attack going. Luckily for them, attacking midfield is probably their best, deepest position on the team.

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With Milinković-Savić, Adem Ljajić, and Dušan Tadić, the attacking midfield trio in Serbia’s expected 4-2-3-1 formation will be full of players who can create for others and score themselves. These guys are at their best when running at back-peddling defenses in packs, so the Serbian counterattack should be deadly. Their strikers aren’t quite as good as the players who’ll play behind them, which could be a worry. Aleksandar Mitrović, their starting center forward, has been sort of lost at club level over the past couple years with Premier League team Newcastle, but he has a good record with the national team and he did very well during a half-season loan at Fulham to close this past season.

Serbia’s defense is old and slow, but still pretty talented. Three of the four predicted starters in the defense are in their early 30s, but those three are also some of Serbia’s most experienced and decorated players in the squad. Plus, the back four will get plenty of help from the very good defensive midfielders playing in front of them, Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević. Nobody can look at Brazil’s attack and think to themselves Psht, we can handle them, but the other forward lines Serbia will face in Group E shouldn’t worry them much. If the creators are creating and Mitrović is firing and the defenders aren’t isolated and losing foot races left and right, Serbia will be a threat to just about anyone.

Group E Fixtures

All times Eastern

June 17, 8 a.m.: Costa Rica vs. Serbia at Samara Arena

June 22, 2 p.m.: Serbia vs. Switzerland at Kaliningrad Stadium

June 27, 2 p.m.: Serbia vs. Brazil at Spartak Stadium