SB Nation

Kirsten Schlewitz | March 21, 2013

Setting aside reality

a Yugoslav dream team

On the eve of the World Cup qualifier between Croatia and Serbia, it’s perhaps natural to wonder a bit about what the football world would look like if Yugoslavia had not split apart in the 1990s. The breakup has given us a number of competent (and not-so-competent) footballing nations, but whenever they play, there's always a fascinating question lurking in the background: Just how well would a combined Yugoslav side fare today?

The Gory Details


Note: if you want a full and complete history of the Yugoslav conflict, I suggest checking out a few books from your local library. But since this is a post about football, we’re not going to delve too deeply into the complexities underlying the conflict.

After World War II, the majority of the Slavic people of the Balkans, who had long been under the rule of various empires and exchanged like pawns in a giant game of chess, came together to form one independent state: Yugoslavia. The state was composed of six republics and two autonomous regions and, for the most part, ethnic and religious differences were smoothed out and hidden under the rug of nationalism. Yugoslavia survived, in one form or another, for nearly sixty years. But after the death of long-time ruler Josip Broz Tito, the union began to disintegrate.

Each republic is now a separate independent state and has its own national football team

In June of 1991, both Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, followed by Macedonia in September. Bosnia and Herzegovina followed with a declaration of independence in March 1992, after which Serbia and Montenegro joined together as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The dissolution of that union did not come about until May of 2006. Each republic is now a separate independent state and has its own national football team.

Then there’s Kosovo, an autonomous region during the days of Yugoslavia. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but due to Serbia’s claims on the region, has still not been fully recognized as a state. As such, their national team is not a member of either FIFA or UEFA and is only permitted to take part in international friendlies. The majority of quality Kosovar Albanian footballers play for Switzerland, where many emigrated as children.

The breakup of Yugoslavia has faded from the consciousness of almost everyone who is not native to the Balkans or a huge history nerd. But tensions between ethnic groups, which resulted in bloody conflict in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in particular, often still remain under the surface. Sometimes they boil over, even when football is involved. Hostilities have flared in Croatia recently: a right-wing group demanded Serbian coach Sinisa Mihajlovic not be allowed to enter the country, accusing him of having bought weapons for Serbs during the war in Croatia – all due to a faulty translation from a Gazzetta dello Sport article. Dinamo Zagreb boss Zdravko Mamic accused Croatia’s minister of Science, Education and Sport, Zeljko Jovanovic, an ethnic Serb, of "hating everything Croatian" and being an "insult to the Croatian brain."

These opinions obviously do not reflect the thoughts of the majority of Croats. Mamic was put into police custody for a night, the Prime Minister and President of Croatia condemned his words, and ordinary citizens spoke out against what was said. But the fact remains that nationality and ethnicity continue to play a huge role in certain parts of the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia. When examining the national teams, there are many instances of players born in what is now Bosnia who have chosen to play for either the Croatia or Serbia national side, placing ethnicity above their place of birth.

Yugoslavia reunified

Michael Steele / Getty Images

If we're being realistic, there’s not a chance that a contemporary Yugoslav side would ever exist. But reality also shows that there’s hope – that in many cases, the people of the former Yugoslavia are looking past ethnic and national lines and trying to create less fractured societies. Please understand, this intellectual exercise is not meant to emphasize the divides between the republics, or to consider to what extent ethnicity or nationalism figures into each player’s life. It is not calling for a return to the days of Tito. It is merely an appreciation of Balkan football, an imagining of how great this side could be.

Strangely enough, three of the six former Yugoslav republics were drawn together in UEFA Group A. It’s Croatia that are dominating the group, even on points with Belgium. Serbia and Macedonia trail behind, each with four. Two other groups are also led by former Yugoslavs: Bosnia and Herzegovina are at the top of Group G, together with Greece, and Montenegro sit alone atop Group H. Then there’s Slovenia, struggling in Group E with just three points, as many as have been earned by tiny Cyprus.

With many of the republics putting up a decent showing in the qualifiers, it’s reasonable to think that, had the country remained unified, they would already have one foot on the plane to Brazil. But which players would make the cut?


GKSamir Handanovic
Slovenia / Inter Milan

Handanovic, who joined Inter this summer, is the first choice keeper for Slovenia, earning 61 caps since his first call up back in 2004. While many fans shorten his name to "Handa," the appellation "Handy" is quite apt. Handanovic is well-known for his penalty-saving abilities, but even when he’s not in the spotlight, it’s easy to see why he’s first-choice here. His command of the area and cool composure have saved Inter time and again this season.

Dino Panato / Getty Images

Handanovic, who joined Inter this summer, is the first choice keeper for Slovenia, earning 61 caps since his first call up back in 2004. While many fans shorten his name to "Handa," the appellation "Handy" is quite apt. Handanovic is well-known for his penalty-saving abilities, but even when he’s not in the spotlight, it’s easy to see why he’s first-choice here. His command of the area and cool composure have saved Inter time and again this season.

RBDarijo Srna
Croatia / Shakhtar Donetsk

Croatia’s captain has put in 100 appearances for the national team, managing 20 goals in that time – a figure attacking midfielders sometimes don’t even reach. He had a good outing in Shakhtar’s Champions League run this year, setting up Willian for goals against Chelsea and Nordsjælland and scoring the first goal in the draw against Dortmund.

UEFA handout

Croatia’s captain has put in 100 appearances for the national team, managing 20 goals in that time – a figure attacking midfielders sometimes don’t even reach. He had a good outing in Shakhtar’s Champions League run this year, setting up Willian for goals against Chelsea and Nordsjælland and scoring the first goal in the draw against Dortmund.

CBNeven Subotic
Serbia / Borussia Dortmund

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Subotic is just 24, especially considering he’s been a regular starter with Dortmund since the start of the 2009 season. Despite multiple countries clamoring to cap him – Subotic actually played non-senior international football for the United States – in the end he chose Serbia, and since 2009 had become a familiar face in their side. Subotic is great in the air and, as seems common to the Serbs, can be a physically punishing defender when he so chooses.

Martin Rose / Getty Images

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Subotic is just 24, especially considering he’s been a regular starter with Dortmund since the start of the 2009 season. Despite multiple countries clamoring to cap him – Subotic actually played non-senior international football for the United States – in the end he chose Serbia, and since 2009 had become a familiar face in their side. Subotic is great in the air and, as seems common to the Serbs, can be a physically punishing defender when he so chooses.

CBNemanja Vidic
Serbia / Manchester United

Ok, so Vidic retired from the Serbia national team back in 2011, but he’s still one of the best center backs in the world, and deserves to be included on this list. Vidic has had a tough time of it lately due to constant knee injury, but when he’s fit he’s first choice for Sir Alex Ferguson. His international career might be remembered for his missed penalty against Slovenia in 2011, but he’s consistent and his leadership is essential at the back.

Clive Mason / Getty Images

Ok, so Vidic retired from the Serbia national team back in 2011, but he’s still one of the best center backs in the world, and deserves to be included on this list. Vidic has had a tough time of it lately due to constant knee injury, but when he’s fit he’s first choice for Sir Alex Ferguson. His international career might be remembered for his missed penalty against Slovenia in 2011, but he’s consistent and his leadership is essential at the back.

LBMatija Nastasic
Serbia / Manchester City

When City bought Nastasic this summer from Fiorentina, many were skeptical about whether he’d manage to secure a starting role. His raw talent was evident, but his excellent matches were often overshadowed by the Viola’s defensive breakdowns. But the young defender – he’s about to reach his 20th birthday – has shone in Manchester this season, with crisp passing and excellent speed. That’s why he’s getting moved over to the left in this team: it seems Nastasic would be likely to play just as well as a full back and, let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of great left backs in this pool.

Stu Forster / Getty Images

When City bought Nastasic this summer from Fiorentina, many were skeptical about whether he’d manage to secure a starting role. His raw talent was evident, but his excellent matches were often overshadowed by the Viola’s defensive breakdowns. But the young defender – he’s about to reach his 20th birthday – has shone in Manchester this season, with crisp passing and excellent speed. That’s why he’s getting moved over to the left in this team: it seems Nastasic would be likely to play just as well as a full back and, let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of great left backs in this pool.

CMAleksandar Ignjovski
Serbia / Werder Bremen

Ignjovski is a hot youngish talent who also serves the function of getting a Macedonian into the team, albeit in a tangential way: he’s of Macedonian background and could have played for their national side. But this Belgrade native chose Serbia instead and has racked up ten caps thus far. Ignjovski is essential to this side because he can provide the defensive prowess and tackling skill to protect the back line, while still providing the sort of passing that can spring the attack into action.

Srdjan Stevanovic / Getty Images

Ignjovski is a hot youngish talent who also serves the function of getting a Macedonian into the team, albeit in a tangential way: he’s of Macedonian background and could have played for their national side. But this Belgrade native chose Serbia instead and has racked up ten caps thus far. Ignjovski is essential to this side because he can provide the defensive prowess and tackling skill to protect the back line, while still providing the sort of passing that can spring the attack into action.

CMLuka Modric
Croatia / Real Madrid

It’s hard to imagine a Yugoslav side not revolving around one of the world’s best midfielders – even if Modric has been having some trouble integrating himself into the Madrid starting lineup. It may be his play at Tottenham Hotspur that attracted the attention of many, but his admirers’ belief was reinforced by his play at the Euros last summer, particularly when Modric almost single-handedly destabilized the Italy side. Little Luka is a true playmaker, able to orchestrate the progression of the match, pick out a perfect pass or send in a stunning strike.

Denis Doyle / Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine a Yugoslav side not revolving around one of the world’s best midfielders – even if Modric has been having some trouble integrating himself into the Madrid starting lineup. It may be his play at Tottenham Hotspur that attracted the attention of many, but his admirers’ belief was reinforced by his play at the Euros last summer, particularly when Modric almost single-handedly destabilized the Italy side. Little Luka is a true playmaker, able to orchestrate the progression of the match, pick out a perfect pass or send in a stunning strike.

CMGranit Xhaka
Switzerland / Borussia Monchengladbach

Xhaka, signed by Gladbach in the summer and born in Gnijilane, Kosovo, might not be racking up all of the goals – or all of the starts – but he’s a superb young talent who can stabilize this midfield. Like Ignjovski, he’s got a physical presence and knows how to put in a decent tackle. He’s not going to be the one conducting the tempo (that’s what Modric is for) but he knows how to put in a great pass.

Dennis Grombkowski / Getty Images

Xhaka, signed by Gladbach in the summer and born in Gnijilane, Kosovo, might not be racking up all of the goals – or all of the starts – but he’s a superb young talent who can stabilize this midfield. Like Ignjovski, he’s got a physical presence and knows how to put in a decent tackle. He’s not going to be the one conducting the tempo (that’s what Modric is for) but he knows how to put in a great pass.

RFXhedran Shaqiri
Switzerland / Bayern Munich

Bayern knew what they were doing when they snapped up Shaqiri last summer. A member of the senior Swiss team since age 18, Shaqiri was included in the side for the 2010 World Cup, and went on to score a hat-trick against Bulgaria in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Now he’s playing for one of the best teams in the world, and even from the bench he has the ability to change the game. His speed, creativity and ability to stretch the game make him a valuable inclusion in this side.

Daniel Kopatsch / Getty Images

Bayern knew what they were doing when they snapped up Shaqiri last summer. A member of the senior Swiss team since age 18, Shaqiri was included in the side for the 2010 World Cup, and went on to score a hat-trick against Bulgaria in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Now he’s playing for one of the best teams in the world, and even from the bench he has the ability to change the game. His speed, creativity and ability to stretch the game make him a valuable inclusion in this side.

CFEdin Dzeko
Bosnia & Herzegovina / Manchester City

Perhaps some would argue that Dzeko should come on as a super sub, particularly considering he’s on a run of – gasp – four games without a goal for Manchester City. But Dzeko has 26 goals from just 51 appearances with the Bosnia team, which is pretty impressive. He’s at the top for goals scored in 2014 World Cup qualifying, with five goals from four matches – even if three of those came in Bosnia’s 8- 1 thrashing of Liechtenstein. His physicality and poaching abilities will play off nicely against the other attackers included in this side.

Alex Livesey / Getty Images

Perhaps some would argue that Dzeko should come on as a super sub, particularly considering he’s on a run of – gasp – four games without a goal for Manchester City. But Dzeko has 26 goals from just 51 appearances with the Bosnia team, which is pretty impressive. He’s at the top for goals scored in 2014 World Cup qualifying, with five goals from four matches – even if three of those came in Bosnia’s 8- 1 thrashing of Liechtenstein. His physicality and poaching abilities will play off nicely against the other attackers included in this side.

LFStevan Jovetic
Montenegro / Fiorentina

Jovetic struggled with injury earlier this season, and when he returned to the Viola, it looked as though he might not be worth the high sums being bandied about to woo him from Florence. But he’s helped Fiorentina revive themselves in the past month, particularly in the last match against Inter, in which he scored a brace and generally left the defense looking stunned. When JoJo’s on form, he’s a thrill to watch, and his fancy footwork brings a certain excitement to this side.

Claudio Villa / Getty Images

Jovetic struggled with injury earlier this season, and when he returned to the Viola, it looked as though he might not be worth the high sums being bandied about to woo him from Florence. But he’s helped Fiorentina revive themselves in the past month, particularly in the last match against Inter, in which he scored a brace and generally left the defense looking stunned. When JoJo’s on form, he’s a thrill to watch, and his fancy footwork brings a certain excitement to this side.


Of course, we're going to need substitutes, as well. Here's what the bench for team Yugoslavia might look like.

GKAsmir Begovic
Bosnia & Herzegovina / Stoke City

Begovic and his ten clean sheets for Stoke are just barely edged out by Handanovic’s safe hands

DFBranislav Ivanovic
Serbia / Chelsea

Rafa Benitez may not have a clue where to play Ivanovic, but he’s best at right back and can do a more than capable job stepping in to that role.

DFStefan Savic
Montenegro / Fiorentina

Manchester City got what they paid for when buying Nastasic, but the real surprise is how Savic, not even an adequate Premier League defender, is thriving under Vincenzo Montella.

DFAleksandar Kolarov
Serbia / Manchester City

Kolarov’s been spending a bit of time on the bench recently, so we’ll put him in his familiar habitat while we wait and see if the the play-Nastasic-out-of-position experiment works out. Plus – someone to take the free kicks!

DFNikolče Noveski
Macedonia / Mainz

Noveski has scored a record six own goals in the Bundesliga – but he’s making up for it in international competition, scoring the opening goal in Macedonia’s draw with Scotland and following it up with a goal in the friendly against Denmark. Plus, political considerations demand the inclusion of a Macedonian.

MFFilip Djuričić
Serbia / Heerenveen

Another promising young player, Djuricic has already scored twice for Serbia, with just nine appearances. Benfica have already seen enough and will bring him to Portugal in the summer.

FJosip Radosevic
Croatia / Napoli

Ok, this is mostly a personal choice based on Napoli fandom, but the 18-year-old has already debuted for the senior Croatia side and he scored two goals in his first appearance with the Napoli Primavera. Radosevic has a bright future ahead.

FAdem Ljajic
Serbia / Fiorentina

Ljajic’s not exactly known for his calm demeanor and level personality, which is why he’s not got a look from Serbia recently. But his recent form for Fiorentina and his interplay with Jovetic means he deserves a place on the bench.

FMario Mandzukic
Croatia / Bayern Munich

Really, the central forward on this side could be either Mandzukic or Dzeko, and the Bosnian only won due to his recent heroics for the national side.

FAndrija Delibašić
Montenegro / Rayo Vallecano

Ah, you were expecting Mirko Vucinic, weren’t you? Well, Delibasic already has four goals in qualifying and is less likely to whiff in front of goal, so he gets the nod.

Special mention: There’s one man that would make this Yugoslav side practically unbeatable, and that man is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Unfortunately, Ibra’s parents immigrated to Sweden long before the breakup of Yugoslavia, leaving him ineligible for this list. But, wow, Bosnia must really be regretting not wooing Zlatan for their national team.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

Special mention: There’s one man that would make this Yugoslav side practically unbeatable, and that man is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Unfortunately, Ibra’s parents immigrated to Sweden long before the breakup of Yugoslavia, leaving him ineligible for this list. But, wow, Bosnia must really be regretting not wooing Zlatan for their national team.

In the end, the idea of disregarding nationality is preposterous. The entire point of having international matches is to rally a country around its players, to join together in the thrills and commiserate in defeat. The lines on the map have been drawn in pencil, and those lines will continue to be erased and rerouted, dotted and filled in. For the most part, the change is due to the will of the people, and they have every right to create a new state that meets their needs.

And that’s great. That new state can reflect their culture and language and give us a fantastic new flag to see waving and hopefully a catchy new anthem to hear. But when it comes to international football, sometimes it’s impossible not to stop for a moment, stare into space and wonder … what if?

About the Author

71_kn__2_

Kirsten Schlewitz is the calcio specialist for SB Nation Soccer, devoting plenty of time to Serie A and attempting to keep up-to-date on Serie B. An avid Napoli supporter, she never professes to be a neutral, but hey, you didn't want dry, bare-bones reporting anyway, did you?

When not writing about calcio, Kirsten contributes to SBN's Aston Villa site, 7500toHolte.com. She can also be found ranting on Twitter (often in multiple languages!), sipping beer, and studying international law. Sometimes all at the same time.

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