Thursday 28 June 2018, 12:00

Matic: We’ve put Serbia back on the football map

  • Serbia displayed attacking class and fighting spirit at Russia 2018

  • ​Nemanja Matic believes Serbia did themselves proud

  • Milos Veljkovic discusses being thrown in at the deep end

By Sonja Nikcevic with Serbia

Serbia are heading home after the group phase of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, but they leave with their heads held high after producing moments of attacking quality and their patented fighting spirit.

“This is one of those moments when we don’t feel disappointment – we feel pride that we represented our country, that we gave our maximum,” said Nemanja Matic, one of Serbia’s leaders on and off the pitch. “We can all look at each other straight in the eyes and agree that we gave it our all.

“It was definitely not perfect, but we have put Serbia back on the football map with our presence and our performances.”

Serbian fans had dared to dream of a victory over Brazil that would have sent them into the Round of 16, but despite a courageous display in which they appeared to have their opponents rattled on occasions, the five-time world champions controlled the majority of the match and won 2-0.

“This is the kind of defeat that isn’t painful,” said Matic. “We are sad, of course, to be going out, but I hope that, while we might not have made the nation happy, we haven’t disappointed them.

“We fought for 90 minutes for one another against such a strong team, who know exactly what they need to do in every moment, and that has world-class players. The world is talking about Serbia in football terms again, and what we have to do is focus on what’s ahead.”

What looks to be ahead is a bright future for Serbia, who, despite having a number of experienced defenders in their ranks – including Aleksandar Kolarov (32), Dusko Tosic (33), Branislav Ivanovic and Antonio Rukavina (both 34) – had the fifth-youngest squad of the World Cup. One of the up-and-comers given a chance of a lifetime in Moscow – a competitive international debut against Philippe Coutinho, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus – was Werder Bremen’s Milos Veljkovic. The 22-year-old produced an excellent performance alongside towering Fiorentina 20-year-old Nikola Milenkovic, showing Serbia have a highly promising centre-back pairing for the future.

“I was a little surprised when I found out that I was going to be starting against Brazil, since I had been on the bench for the first two matches,” said Veljkovic, who was another member of Serbia’s triumphant FIFA U-20 World Cup side of 2015. “But I was ready, I had to show that I could play my own game, and I think it went well.”

With the likes of Veljkovic and Milenkovic at the back, Matic and the widely coveted Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in midfield, and names like Nemanja Radonjic and Luka Jovic flashing their attacking potential, Serbian supporters have ample reason to be upbeat.