The Petkovic mantra: we love the hardest group

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The Independent Football

Serbia-Montenegro may have been drawn in the toughest group, but after the difficulties he has overcome to get his country to the World Cup that is not going to faze their coach, Ilija Petkovic. "I have emphasised many times that the most important thing is that we are in Germany," he said.

"My first impression is that our group is the hardest, but we had the hardest group in qualification as well. I was optimistic then, and I am optimistic now. We are a small country, we are poor and we are in transition, but in the qualifiers we fought with big countries like Spain and Belgium. We fought with our hearts, with knowledge and with a desire to prove people wrong. We are not afraid of anything or anyone."

That attitude has restored a measure of pride not merely to Serbian football but to a battered nation. At the funeral of the actor Ljuba Tadic, an old man tottered up to Petkovic, seized his hand and shook it. "I know this is not the right time or place," he said, "but I have to thank you." It has become impossible for Petkovic to walk his dog in the park near the national parliament because so many want to express similar gratitude.

What remained of Yugoslavia after the wars of the Nineties became Serbia-Montenegro in February 2003, but for football, the change of name was not auspicious. A draw and a defeat were followed by the absolute nadir as they conceded two goals in the final three minutes to lose to Azerbaijan. Dejan Savicevic resigned as national coach and was replaced by Petkovic, who played for Yugoslavia at the 1974 World Cup.

His first game in charge brought a 1-0 victory over Wales, but the circumstances of that game reveal the extent of Serbia's problems: it should have been played five months previously, but was postponed following the assassination of the prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.

The following March, it was Petkovic who found the body of the president of the Serbia-Montenegro Football Federation, Branko Bulatovic, after he had been shot dead on the steps of the federation's offices in central Belgrade. Police have yet to find his killers. "I will never forget that," he said. "It was a tragedy and we were all affected. I feared the football balloon would burst. He had arranged the schedule of fixtures for the World Cup qualifiers, so I wanted to reach Germany for his memory."

Emotional as that may sound, Petkovic proved himself a remarkably clear-headed coach. "Our mentality is like this: we are small nation but we can be great out of our stubborn spirit," he said. And that, to him, meant prioritising defence over the traditional Serbian virtues of technical excellence and attacking verve. His success can hardly be disputed: in 10 qualifying games, Serbia-Montenegro conceded just one goal.

That is in part testimony to the solidity of the back-three of Mladen Krstajic, Nemanja Vidic and Goran Gavrancic, but it also speaks of a change of emphasis. Petkovic courted controversy by leaving out Mateja Kezman - often favouring the beanpole Nik-ola Zigic - but Kezman returned to score decisive goals against Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina. "There were no angry words," Petkovic said. "There were lot of stories about a disagreement but I was a friend to everybody."

In 1992, when a team featuring Serbs last qualified for a major tournament, Yugoslavia were expelled as war broke out in the Balkans, and their replace-ments, Denmark, won Euro 92. "This time," Petkovic said, "we are not sending any substitutes. We are going ourselves."