Friday 16 February 2018, 22:23

The U-20 champions set to star for Serbia 

In 1987, Yugoslavia won the FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. It was a stunning and wholly unexpected triumph, and when Serbia won the same tournament – subsequently renamed the FIFA U-20 World Cup – three years ago in New Zealand, it generated a similar buzz.

But while the Class of 2015 received richly deserved acclaim, the job of emulating their predecessors had only just begun. After all, what made Yugoslavia’s ’87 success stand out was the impact that its instigators – youngsters such as Zvonimir Boban, Predrag Mijatovic, Davor Suker, and Robert Prosinecki – went on to have in the senior game.

"Everyone still talks about the Yugoslavia team that won in Chile, and we know how famous those players became," defender Milos Veljkovic, one of the New Zealand graduates, told "I think ours can be another special generation.”

That is a hope shared by Serbia fans, who had grown disillusioned with a national team that had failed to qualify for three successive major tournaments. Now, with that run having been brought to an end and Russia 2018 beckoning, there is excitement about the team’s evolution. This FIFA World Cup™ is, after all, coming around just as several of those 2015 heroes begin to blossom at the top level, and with new coach Mladen Krstajic evidently willing to blood them.

With that in mind, looks at five of the U-20 champions who could make their mark at Russia 2018.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic Age: 22 Position: Midfielder

Winner of adidas Bronze Ball in New Zealand, Milinkovic-Savic completed a €9 million move to Lazio in the wake of the tournament and has since gone on to become one of Europe’s most sought-after midfielders. Tall, powerful, brave in the tackle and composed on the ball, the 6ft 4in youngster has earned the nickname ‘Sergente’ in Italian Serie A and been linked to the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus, and Paris Saint-Germain. But amid reports of €100 million bids from such superpowers, Lazio have stated their determination to resist any approaches. “How much is he worth?” club president Claudio Lotito said recently. “I don’t care - he’s not for sale!” Should Milinkovic-Savic, as expected, shine for Serbia in Russia, expect that resolve to be tested to its limit.

Andrija Zivkovic Age: 21 Position: Winger

"This little kid will be a big player." So said Serbia legend Sinisa Mihajlovic at his first sight of the pacey and skilful Zivkovic. Soon after, he made the then 17-year-old the national team’s youngest-ever player. It was at this same tender age that the winger made history with his club too, becoming the youngest captain in Partizan Belgrade’s history. Having starred in Serbia’s title-winning U-20 team, and scored a free-kick later voted the tournament’s best goal, Zivkovic moved to Portuguese giants Benfica and has since gone from strength to strength. His speed, trickery and range of technical attributes have attracted interest from several European giants, and promise to make him one of the most exciting weapons in Serbia’s World Cup arsenal

Marco Grujic Age: 21 Position: Midfielder

Signed by Liverpool, having had his pick of Europe’s top clubs in the wake of the U-20 finals, Grujic has found first-team football hard to come by at Anfield. But manager Jurgen Klopp remains a big fan and, with the World Cup looming, recently sanctioned a loan move to Cardiff City. “Marko deserves to play more,” said Klopp. “I like the boy a lot. His heading is outstanding and I really see Marko in the future playing for Liverpool.” Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, for his part, has said that Grujic’s loan spell had already “toughened him up” and “improved his game”, and it could well lead to a prominent role for this classy midfielder at Russia 2018.

Milos Veljkovic Age: 22 Position: Defender

Having come through the ranks at Tottenham Hotspur, Veljkovic – a centre-half who can also operate as a defensive midfielder – is now a regular for Bundesliga side Werder Bremen. Club coach Florian Kohfeldt is a big admirer, saying: “His passing skills, especially his vertical and diagonal passes, are very good.” The defender’s technical ability is also valued by Krstajic, with Veljkovic having featured in each of the team’s two most recent World Cup warm-up matches.

Nemanja Maksimovic Age: 23 Position: Midfielder

Scorer of the unforgettable 118th-minute goal against Brazil that clinched the U-20 title for Serbia, Maksimovic has since bolstered his reputation with an impressive two-year spell at Astana. His performances for the ambitious Kazakh club led to Spanish side Valencia swooping for his signature last July, and while he has yet to become a regular at the Mestalla, Krstajic is known to be a fan. In Serbia’s most recent friendly – a 1-1 draw with Korea Republic – Maksimovic lined up in midfield alongside fellow New Zealand veterans Grujic, Milinkovic-Savic, and Zivkovic.