Yugoslavia may be no more, but the chaos that so often overwhelmed them at major tournaments remains. Serbia & Montenegro came through the World Cup qualifiers bristling with purpose and a sense of togetherness, but ahead of this afternoon's match against Holland, relations are looking distinctly strained.
The official line is that morale remains good, but the tensions were obvious as training had to be abandoned after a serious on-pitch altercation. It followed an aerial challenge between Nem-anja Vidic and Mateja Kezman, with the Manchester United centre-back angered by the way the former Chelsea player had climbed on his back. He took the next opportunity to lunge in on Kezman, to which the forward reacted furiously. The former Aston Villa forward Savo Milosevic joined in on Kezman's side, and only the intervention of others prevented a brawl.
As build-ups go, it is hard to imagine one more farcical; to lose a player may be regarded as unfortunate, but to lose a republic looks like carelessness. The country will no longer exist by the time of the next World Cup after Montenegro voted to secede, while the squad will be the only one in Germany to start with 22 players rather than 23.
Given that only two of the initial squad - Dragoslav Jevric and Mirko Vucinic - are from Monte-negro, fragmentation was never going to be a major issue, particularly when Jevric reacted to the referendum decision by declaring that he had "always been a Serb". It was Vucinic, though, who then found himself central to the crisis that seems to have vitiated the spirit of the qualifiers. The Lecce forward was injured in the European Under-21 Championship in Portugal, leading the coach, Ilija Petkovic, to call up his son Dusan, a 31-year-old defender from OFK Belgrade whose only involvement had been to sit on the bench against San Marino.
He last played for Serbia & Montenegro in August 2004, in a friendly away to Slovenia. It was not such a mad decision as it may at first seem, given the lack of cover at left-back in the initial squad, although Red Star's Alexander Lukovic would have been a more obvious choice.
"It was no problem at all," said Kezman. "We knew him from before. He's a good friend to us. It means nothing that he was not involved in the qualifiers." The Belgrade tabloids, though, were driven to frenzy by the perceived nepotism, and the pressure they created led to Dusan Petkovic walking out on the squad. "He put an end to the ordeal," said his father.
"We would have liked him to stay with us," said Jevric, "but it was his decision. He went, and we will have to get on with it."
The pattern is familiar. Last time the World Cup was in Germany, in 1974, Yugoslavia qualified for the second phase at the top of a group that included Brazil and Scotland, but amid infighting and a dispute over bonuses that even a visit from Tito couldn't resolve, they faltered badly. "Everything went wrong when they gave us the money," said the Slovenian forward Brane Oblak. "You know how it is. Somebody goes shopping... And as soon as things went wrong, the problems with Serbs and Croats began. Sometimes it wasn't pretty."
It is not just morale that is causing concern in Serbia & Montenegro. They prospered in the qualifiers with a 4-4-2 system, with the giant Nikola Zigic partnering Kezman up front. Petkovic was praised for that innovation, but the indications are that he will abandon it today, preferring the security of an extra holding midfielder, Albert Nadj, coming in alongside Igor Duljaj in a 4-2-3-1.
The absence of Vidic causes further disruption, breaking up the "Fantastic Four" defence who conceded just one goal in qualifying, although there may be a hidden benefit in Goran Gavrancic's move from right-back into the centre, with the more mobile Nenad Djordjevic heading off the threat of Arjen Robben.
That, though, is a silver sliver of a lining in what is looking a very dark cloud for Serbia & Montenegro.Reuse content