The Serbia players know each other like the back of our hands
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, a versatile and powerful midfielder equipped with good feet and tactical intelligence, is one of the first names on Dragan Stojkovic’s team sheet. He was an integral part of the Serbia side that booked a spot at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 with an unexpected victory over Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in Lisbon, at the conclusion of a roller-coaster qualifying campaign.
In 2018, the Lazio star was included in his country’s Russia 2018-bound World Cup squad, despite not having participated in the qualifiers. “I didn’t feel that I deserved to be there”.
These days, he is one of the lynchpins of an entertaining and dynamic team. Despite these qualities, and the clear ambitions of their legendary coach, Milinkovic-Savic believes that Serbia should keep a low profile in the run-up to Qatar 2022: “We need to have realistic expectations and not get carried away.”
One thing is certain: Milinkovic-Savic and his team-mates will do everything in their power to take Serbia as far as they can and make their supporters proud of their national team at the World Cup. While the love that he feels for the Serbian jersey is natural, it also stems from a choice. Born in Spain to a Bosnian father and a Serbian mother, he unhesitatingly chose Serbia, with whom he lifted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2015 courtesy of a 2-1 win over Brazil in the final. In a twist of fate, the same opponents await Serbia in their opening match in Qatar.
Sergej, your family background is fairly unique. What encouraged you to pick Serbia?
Milinkovic-Savic: I was born in Spain and then I later lived in Austria. My mum is Serbian and my dad is Bosnian, and we spent all of our holidays in Serbia. That’s why I decided to play for the Serbian national team.
Today you’re one of the mainstays of the team. What does representing Serbia mean to you?
Playing for your country and your fellow citizens is one of the most important things in a footballer’s career. While I may not have grown up here, I did spend a lot of time here with my family, and I began to get an urge to play for this national team and for my country.
What memories do you have of the 2018 World Cup?
I was still quite young and I didn’t take part in the qualifiers. The coach called me up after that. At first I found it pretty hard because I didn’t feel that I deserved to be there. Everything happened very quickly. But in the end my team-mates were incredibly welcoming and I got used to it.
In the four years that have gone by since that World Cup, have you changed much as a player?
Certainly, yes. I’ve improved various parts of my game that weren’t all that great. There are no doubt other things I need to improve, and that’ll come in time. A lot depends on the coach. He’s often the one who spots a certain area that you need to work on. There isn’t a player alive who’s perfect at everything.
What were the key moments in Serbia’s qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022?
The match against Portugal, without a doubt, as that decided everything. The one in Ireland, where we led for almost the entire match but conceded an unlucky equaliser, was crucial too. That was the result that put us in a position where we had to go and win in Portugal. That’s a game that’ll stay with me because we pulled off the impossible. Nobody thought we could do it.
What memories do you have of the celebrations following the win over Portugal?
Oh, there are a lot of things that I’ll never forget. The first is when the referee whistled for the end of the match. At that moment, I saw the substitutes racing towards us from the bench and the players on the pitch hugging each other. That’ll stick with me forever. The party went on for a long time. After all the Portugal fans left, our supporters stayed in their section, and everything that followed – in the changing room, on the bus and at the hotel – was simply unforgettable.
Let’s talk about Alexander Mitrovic. You’ve played with him for a long time. What type of person is he?
Yes, I’ve known ‘Mitar’ for a long time. In 2013, we played together at the UEFA U-19 European Championship in Lithuania. Before that, we’d already been playing together for a year at national level. He’s a great friend. He helps me a lot out on the pitch and I help him as well, because I know how important it is for him to score. I try to set him up for shots as much as possible so that he stays happy. Making other people happy also makes me happy. I’m sure that the atmosphere in our squad is quite unusual, because although our average age is a little high, most of the players have played together for five or six years now.
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How important a role do his goals play in your success?
They’re hugely important, obviously, like all the others that have been scored up to this point. We want him to be on top form, as he has been in recent times. If that’s how it goes, we should be fine.
Has he changed a lot over time?
As a person? No, not that much. He’s always been how he is now. Maybe his appearance gives the impression that he’s changed, that he’s different somehow, but that’s not the case. I’ve known him for years and he’s very open. He loves to joke around. He’s a great team-mate.
Would it be right to say he has a bit of a fiery spirit?
I wouldn’t say so, no.
How would you rate the importance of having a coach with significant World Cup experience?
When Stojkovic was appointed, it was strange for us to have such a famous figure as a coach, to think that he’d be the one pointing out our mistakes and such. It’s been a year now since he took charge, maybe a little more. I’ve definitely learned things from him that should prove useful to me for the rest of my career. His celebrity status actually ended up being useful too, because he gave us what we really needed – he moulded us into a proper national team. He passed on his knowledge to us, and that must have been pretty clear to people who watched the team during the qualifiers.
What do you think of your group in Qatar, which features Brazil, Switzerland and Cameroon?
At the last World Cup, we already came up against Switzerland and Brazil in the group stage. At first, I was a bit disappointed, because it would have been nice to play different teams, but thinking about it again, I wonder if it might actually be a good thing. We’ll try to achieve better results than we got in Russia. Honestly, I can’t wait to play at the World Cup, and I can’t wait for when we finally start to get ready and prepare for what is a huge event.
In your opinion, what are Serbia’s chances at this World Cup?
We have to have realistic expectations and not get carried away, just like in the qualifiers. We need to take one game at a time and try to put a run of wins together. But our main objective will be to advance from the group.
Text from FIFA