MILAN, ITALY - APRIL 24: Dejan Stankovic of FC Internazionale Milano in action during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Atalanta BC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on April 24, 2010 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Massimo Cebrelli/Getty Images)
FIFA RANK: 15
From the moment the final second ticked off the clock in Germany four years ago, the Serbian national soccer team was on a mission. Serbia finished dead last (32nd place) at the '06 World Cup. It was a disastrous campaign for a squad that was expected to compete and do well. But to their credit, there were a number of things going off the field that affected the play on it.
Serbia entered that competition as Serbia and Montenegro, but left as just Serbia after Montenegro's government back home decided on the eve of the team's first game to declare its independence. Bad timing to say the least.
Serbia moved on as an independent, but it ultimately helped strenghten their squad and rejuvenate the country's love for the game. The "Bela Orlovi" (White Eagles) were now playing for themselves, and eventhough they are the direct descendant of the former Yugoslavia, the past four years have felt like a new experience.
The White Eagles tore through qualification. They finished first in a group that involved powerhouse France, Romania and Austria. They scored the most goals and allowed the least. Serbia also unleashed a powerful attacking style that featured one of the tallest strikers in the game 6-7 Nikola Zigic. They also displayed speed and skill on the wing with Milan Jovanovic providing a scoring punch outside.
Yet to beat the White Eagles, you have to take it right to their back line, considered to be one the best in Europe. Captain Dejan Stankovic just won the Champions League title with Inter Milan and Namanja Vidic is a World-class defender for Manchester United.
The most unheralded defender is a player and name American soccer fans may recognize: Neven Subotic. I'll be honest, I didn't know much about Neven other than he was on the FIFA 09 video game roster...for the US! Next thing I know, the kid shows up on Serbia's World Cup squad. So what happened? Subotic was born in Yugoslavia, but his family moved to the United States when he was young. He trained and played for US youth teams, but US Soccer decided to drop him from the U-20 World Cup team, and Neven decided to play ball in Serbia, eventhough the US later asked for him to come back. What makes things harder for me to stomach is the US team is in desperate need right now for a left back. My head hurts now.
So make no mistake, Serbia heads into South Africa feeling confident again about its chances. I'm even convincing myself at this point! They were drawn into a brutal group, but its more wide open now that stars Michael Essien and Michael Ballack will not play for Ghana and Germany respectively.
Its a new beginning for the Bela Orlovi and part of a mission set out four years ago after the clock hit zero.
June 13 vs. Ghana - 9 a.m. CT (Tough, defensive battle may have just swung Serbia's way with no Essien for Ghana)
June 18 vs. Germany - 6:30 a.m. CT (Serbia will be amped for this one, but Germans will be ready, I see a draw)
June 23 vs. Australia - 1:30 p.m. CT (Serbs get the slight advantage, and will need a win somewhere to advance)
NEXT ON THE PITCH: UNITED STATES