Last night, Ivan Šaponjić sent Serbia through to the Final of the U20 World Cup in dramatic style, scoring the winner in extra-time of the semi-final against Mali to set up an exciting Final with Brazil. It was fitting that one of Serbia’s most promising youngsters, of which there are an impressive number, helped his National side advance to the Final of the biggest Under-20 tournament in the world. For some who tend to avoid watching youth football, it may seem like the young Serbian squad must have caused a few upsets on their journey to the Final on 28 on June, but the truth is that their success so far in this year’s competition is just one manifestation of a much larger, more impressive assemblage of youth football in Serbia. On top of the Under-20s success, Serbia’s Under-21 side go into their European Championships as one of the favourites. It’s clear to see that Serbian football is on a relentless and formidable rise…
Against Mali, 17-year-old striker Ivan Šaponjić impressed off the bench, as he has done so often already this tournament, and his headed goal has further established his name as one of the most promising youngsters in the competition. The first of Serbia’s two goals came from another distinguished youngster, in the form of winger Andrija Živković. The fact that Serbia’s two goals (they could and should have scored many more) came courtesy of two star products of the Partizan academy just goes to demonstrate the strength of Serbia’s youth setup. Šaponjić and Živković, 17 and 18 years of age respectively, are joint top goalscorers this competition for Serbia, and have already broken into Partizan’s first team.
Živković in particular has shone brightest in a group of wickedly talented prospects. The winger is the youngest ever player to make a senior appearance for the Serbian National Team, and has netted an impressive 10 goals from 48 appearance at club level. Not only this, but the young Serb is the youngest ever player to captain Partizan, pulling on his club’s armband at 17 years, 7 months and 18 days. It is no surprise, then, to see Živković excel in this summer’s U-20 World Cup – his outstanding freekick against Mexico in the group stages demonstrated his excellent technical ability.
But it’s not just these two young Serbians that have impressed in the tournament, and not just this Serbian squad that has shown promise. Serbia’s Under-21 side embark upon their first European Championships since their group stage exit in 2009, and go into the tournament with high hopes. Players like Aleksandar Patić and Miloš Jojić have both performed admirably for their respective clubs Villarreal and Borussia Dortmund, and are looking to inspire their side in what will be their first European Championship, after reaching two Finals and one semi-final between 2004 and 2007. The unimpressive lull that befell them between 2009 and 2015 has come to an end, and it is no surprise that the Serbian U-21’s enter into this tournament quietly confident at the same time that their U-20 colleagues advance to the Final of their World Cup.
The potentially fruitful weeks ahead for these two sides paints a bright picture for Serbian football in general. For the Serbian Under-21’s, a semi-final place will see them qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics men’s football tournament, to be held in Brazil. It may be a step too far to overcome the stronger sides of Germany and Denmark in the group stages (particularly without the likes of Lazar Marković and Matija Nastasić), but giant-killing is nothing new to this Serbian squad – to get to this year’s competition they defeated reigning champions Spain in qualification. As for the senior squad, they already boast world-class players in Nemanja Matić and Branislav Ivanović, and the wealth of talent coming through the ranks at Under-20 and Under-21 level would suggest that Serbia could mount a serious challenge in both European and International competitions for many years to come.