Friday 09 June 2017, 12:47

Sharing the secrets to Serbia’s success

  • Veljko Paunovic led Serbia to U-20 World Cup glory in 2015

  • The Chicago Fire coach identifies key aspects to final win over Brazil

  • Paunovic: “Watching it still gives me goosebumps"

If asked to pinpoint the defining moment in Serbia’s shock FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph two years ago, chances are you would go for the obvious, standout candidate. It had to be Nemanja Maksimovic’s 118th-minute winner in the final against Brazil, surely?

Not according to Veljko Paunovic. The Chicago Fire coach, who led the Serbians to that historic victory, had a different moment in mind. His took place not during that final win on the evening of 20 June 2015, but in the small hours of the morning two days earlier.

Congratulations Serbia, 2015 #U20WC champions

— (@FIFAcom) June 20, 2015

“After winning our semi-final, we had a big celebration,” he explained. “But around 3am, I just stopped and said to the rest of my staff, ‘OK, celebration over. Now it’s back to work’.

“What I realised then was that everyone was already really happy with what we’d achieved. Just being in the final against Brazil was seen as an incredible success, certainly to everyone back home.

“But I wasn’t satisfied with that and I didn’t want our players to be satisfied - because I really felt we could win the trophy. So, from that moment, it was about one thing and one thing only: beating Brazil.”

Few at the time fancied Serbia’s chances. Indeed, while Paunovic’s team would have been rank outsiders against the formidable five-time winners in any circumstances, the nature of their run to the final made an upset seem all but impossible.

The unfancied debutants had, after all, been taken to extra time in all three of their previous knockout matches, and had just 48 hours to recover from their latest 120-minute epic. They were also facing a Brazil side that had cruised through their semi-final, winning 5-0.

Paunovic’s concern, beyond his players settling for simply being there, was that they would be dazzled and overawed by those famous yellow shirts. His solution was to lighten the mood.

As he recalled: “I didn’t build the game up in any way. I just said, ‘Go out there, play and enjoy it. Let your talent shine through.’

“I also told the guys not to feel inferior. To do that, I had a bit of fun with them and showed them some videos of me beating Brazilians during my playing days. I told them, ‘Hey, if I can do it, you guys can too. It’s still possible to nutmeg a Brazilian!’

“And,” he added, “if you look at the build-up to our second goal, there’s a nutmeg in there. Fantastic!”

So proud of our young football team. #Champions of FIFA U20 World Cup!!! Braaavo momci!!! #U20WC #Serbia

— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) June 20, 2015

That late, late goal, Serbia’s third extra-time winner - a penalty shoot-out having settled their other knockout match - spoke volumes for a team who lived by their motto: ‘One team with one heart’. Paunovic, passionate and enthusiastic, genuinely loved - and was loved by - his players, with Marko Grujic telling he was the key ingredient in Serbia’s success.

“Winning that World Cup is one of the best things that’s happened in my life,” said Paunovic, a former Atletico Madrid star and Serbia international. “And that’s not only from a professional perspective. It’s also very personal because I was working with a group of players I felt really close to and treated like they were my family.

“I’ve watched the highlights of that tournament since, especially really emotional moments like the final against Brazil, and they still give me goosebumps. It was such an amazing and significant achievement for our country, and it was all thanks to a special group of young people.

“Those players and I still talk about it and stay in touch, even now. The same chat group that we had at the time is still going. We celebrate birthdays, big achievements the guys have – that kind of thing. And of course, when the anniversary comes around of the day we all became world champions, we celebrate and remember it together.”