Friday 28 October 2016

New faces but still the same old issues remain for Serbia

(l-r) Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan pictured during squad training in Abbotstown, Dublin, yesterday.
(l-r) Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan pictured during squad training in Abbotstown, Dublin, yesterday.

In Ireland this week, it's all about the end of one era, as Robbie Keane bids an emotional goodbye to international football.

Around 3,000km away, in Belgrade, they hope that this is the beginning of a new era for their football team, after a period of misery and stagnation which has seen Serbia fail to qualify for the last three major international tournaments. Ireland already have one up on Serbia as we have a club still involved in European competition (Dundalk) while all of Serbia's clubs are out.

Recent form is good (three wins and a draw in four friendly games to date in 2016), there's been an injection of fresh blood, and the presence of six players from England's Premier League in their squad (although two of those are suspended for Monday's game against Ireland) has fed into hopes of a new start, Serbia's players assembling at their team HQ in Stara Pazova outside Belgrade yesterday to prepare for the visit of the Irish.

But old problems still bedevil their game, Serbia's reputation harmed by large-scale rioting by their away fans at a qualifier in Italy and more riots in a game at home to Albania last year.

Last weekend a league game which saw Red Star Belgrade travel to play Novi Pazar was marred by seriously violent disturbances, with racist chanting, forcing no less a figure than the Serbian Prime Minister to make a statement - Enda Kenny remains very silent, when it comes to comments on sport these days.

Fans of Novi Pazar, based in a region of Serbia which has a mainly Bosniak population, directed racist chants at one of Red Star's African players, sang anti-Serbian songs and cheered a senior Bosnian soldier currently facing war crimes charges, and the game was held up for half an hour as missiles rained onto the pitch while Red Star later claimed that their supporters did not feel safe in the city.

Hopefully, things will be less dramatic for the small band of Irish supporters heading to Belgrade for Monday's game, where tickets are on sale to locals for as little as €3.

Serbia's coach Slavoljub Muslin works away at their base outside Belgrade this week to prepare, while he has decided to send one of his assistant to watch Ireland play Oman tomorrow, though he already expects to learn little from the Robbie Keane tribute night.

"We have watched Ireland's games from Euro 2016, and other matches too, so we will be well prepared," says Miuslin, who has already been doing homework on Shane Long, based on information provided by his Southampton team-mate Dusan Tadic.

"We have problems with suspensions (Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov) and injuries (Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic) but we cannot use excuses, we want to beat Ireland."

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