(Repeats fixing name in 14th para)
By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE, Aug 2 (Reuters) – The Serbian national team and the country’s troubled clubs should take a leaf from the book of the Balkan nation’s under-19 side following their shock Euro 2013 victory, coach Ljubinko Drulovic told Reuters.
Serbia, who squeezed into the eight-nation tournament in Lithuania as underdogs, beat France 1-0 in Thursday’s final after finishing top of their group and beating a much-fancied Portugal side on penalties in the semi-finals.
“When we picked this group of players exactly a year ago to the day, we opted for the strongest characters that would blend seamlessly into a functional unit and not necessarily the most talented individuals,” former Yugoslavia forward Drulovic said on Friday.
“We reaped the reward of our hard work and it’s now up to these lads to keep their feet on the ground and strive even more to fulfill their potential and become top players at senior level.
“I am sure that many of them will break into the senior national team in due course and their success gives us a ray of hope that Serbian soccer has a bright future, despite all the difficulties it’s going through at the moment.
“These boys have shown that where there is a will, there is a way and the entire soccer structure should follow in their footsteps if their heroic effort is to be more than just a flash in the pan,” said Drulovic who played for Portuguese giants Porto and Benfica for the best part of his career.
Serbia’s unlikely success came amid a string of poor results at senior level coupled with financial constraints which have hampered 1991 European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade and brought first division side Hajduk Kula to the brink of administration.
Debt-ridden Red Star and champions Partizan are flirting with early elimination from European competition this season and the national team has only a slim chance of reaching next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil following heavy defeats by Belgium and Croatia.
The poor infrastructure of Serbia’s soccer is epitomised by dilapidated stadiums, most of which have more concrete blocks than seats and no floodlights even in the 16-team first division.
Tepid soccer played on bumpy pitches surrounded by terraces exposed to wind, snow and scorching heat attracts only a handful of fans and even Red Star and Partizan can only stay afloat by selling their best players to wealthier European rivals.
The under-19 generation won Serbia’s first international title at any level in these adverse circumstances and FA president Tomislav Karadzic made it clear what he expected from the senior team, packed with exiles playing for Europe’s top clubs.
“These boys have just raised the bar for everybody and sent a message to the coaches of our other national teams and clubs,” Karadzic said as Drulovic and the players cut into a giant cake at a party in the team’s Stara Pazova training base.
“Their success shows that an honest and selfless approach will pay dividends and the imperative now is to use this success as a springboard to get Serbian soccer back on the rails,” added former Aston Villa striker Savo Milosevic, now the director of Serbia’s youth national teams.
Apart from goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has established himself as Partizan’s first choice up front, Tottenham Hotspur’s 17-year old defender Milos Veljkovic was one of the key players in Serbia’s triumph.
The young centre back acknowledged that playing for Spurs in competitions involving some of Europe’s top under-19 teams has helped him mature quickly.
“It would be great if the youth academies of Red Star, Partizan and other Serbian clubs got a chance to play against Europe’s best teams because it’s the quickest way to move on to the next level,” Veljkovic said.
“We clicked as a unit from day one, the coach imbedded all his experience and confidence into us and as the tournament progressed we started to believe that our dream of becoming European champions would come true.
“It did and prompted tears of joy in the dressing room but we won’t get carried away.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)