Saturday 13 November 2021, 14:00

Milinkovic-Savic: Vlahovic is bound to be one of the greats

  • Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is among the best midfielders on the planet

  • The 26-year-old backs Serbia to win in Portugal and qualify for Qatar 2022

  • Milinkovic-Savic raves about 21-year-old striker Dusan Vlahovic

No challenge, no matter how towering, intimidates ‘The Sergeant’. 6ft 3ins tall, broad-shouldered and barer of a glare that makes opponents shiver, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has already inspired his nation to some against-all-odds accomplishments. Serbia were the rank outsiders to win the UEFA U-19 Championship in 2013, yet they emerged from semi-finals also featuring France, Portugal and Spain to conquer it. Nobody gave them a shot at winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, yet they stunned Brazil in the final. And nobody gave them much hope of denying Cristiano Ronaldo and arguably Portugal’s best-ever side an automatic ticket to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, but according to Milinkovic-Savic, they’ll win in Lisbon on Sunday to do just that. The 26-year-old, one of the finest midfielders on the planet, discusses growing up in a sporting family, his Russia 2018 experience, why he feels Serbia can stop Cristiano Ronaldo, and boy wonder Dusan Vlahovic.

FIFA: Your father was a footballer. Your mother was a basketball player. Your brother was an aspiring footballer. Can you tell us about growing up in a sporting family? Milinkovic-Savic: Yes, that’s true. Our mum played basketball, our dad played football, so we were destined to do sport, although we were not pressured into it and we had the freedom to decide for ourselves what we wanted to do. This meant a lot to us, because we already felt inclined to take up sports in our family, so it was easier for us to choose our own destiny. Who were your heroes growing up? Growing up, there were a lot of good players, so naturally I watched all of them, but if I had to choose I’d say [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and I closely watched [Zinedine] Zidane because I started out in that position.

Can you tell us about the experience of going to the 2018 World Cup? It was a big deal for me, especially because prior to that I had hardly featured for the national team. Then the opportunity arose to play at that massive competition, the World Cup, my first one. I will remember it forever because I was pretty young and the other players had a lot of experience, which definitely helped me to improve and develop my career. Have you watched highlights of Dragan Stojkovic’s performance against Spain in the Round of 16 at the 1990 World Cup or other footage of him? What do you think of Stojkovic as a player? He played a long time ago. Of course we’ve seen footage of him on his YouTube channel and other YouTube videos of him, but I don’t have a very good recollection of him as a player because I was really young.

What’s he like as a coach? I like him because he gives us self-confidence. He’s really helpful, he always provides constructive criticism, which helps us a lot because he was a fantastic player back in the day and he understands how things work. It’s therefore easy for him to build the team. He has a lot of good ideas and we try to bring those ideas to life. What do you think of this Serbia team and do you think it’s better than the 2018 team? I was really young when I played my first World Cup and now I’m a couple of years older, so I think the current team is better than the one that went to the last World Cup. So I’m hopeful that we’ll qualify for the World Cup again, just like in 2018, considering we have a better team now.

How would you describe yourself as a player? That’s the worst question you could ask me because I don’t like to talk about myself! Naturally, there are many people who are happy to do that. The important thing for me is to give everything I have in every game and every training session and try to improve where I can. I’m not entirely sure what needs improving, but there are people who can point it out and help me improve my form. I strive to play each game as best as I can and to be better than before. Dusan Vlahovic has been a revelation this season. What do you think of him and how good can he become? Good? He’s not good, he’s outstanding. I’m quite certain the stats would back that up, considering his age. However, I think he’s the type of player who still gets annoyed when he doesn’t play well, so he’s definitely going to get better and get the world talking about him, which is something I like about him. In both training and matches, he never takes it lightly when he misses a chance, so he has a hunger for scoring goals and winning. I like how he wants to prove himself, so I think he’s bound to become one of the greats.

Portugal won UEFA EURO 2016 and the UEFA Nations League in 2019, and boast several magnificent players. What do you think of this Portugal team? Well, just like everyone else, I think that they’re one of the best national teams in the world. I don’t think I need to talk about them; everything’s pretty clear and obvious when it comes to them. I also know what we can achieve in Portugal. Like I said, I think our national team is better now than the one we sent to the last World Cup, so I think everyone knows we’re going for the win. We all know what is required of us, so we cannot wait for Sunday’s match. What do you think of Cristiano Ronaldo? He’s one of the best players in the world. I have experience playing against him from the two seasons he was at Juventus, so I think this will make things easier for us. I know how to play against him and I believe that will help a lot.