Serbs will be a confident bunch in South Africa
Things looked quite bleak for Serbian football in 2008 after watching the European Championships from home and crashing out of the Beijing Olympics. But that was before Radomir Antic was hired as coach and turned the Serbian team around.
Now, Serbia head to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa full of confidence. After taking part in nine World Cups between 1930 and 2002 as Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro lost all three matches in Germany 2006. And then the team - now solely Serbia - failed to qualify for Euro 2008. On top of that, Serbia gathered just one point from three matches at the 2008 Olympics as Serbian football reached a low point.
Enter Antic, who was previously in charge of Zaragoza, Real Madrid and Oviedo before guiding Atletico Madrid to the Primera Liga/Copa del Rey double in his first season in 1995-96 and also coached Barcelona. Antic had been out of the game for four years when the Serbian football bosses gave him control of the sinking ship.
And the 61-year-old used his tactical expertise and ability to bring about change to not just right the Serbia vessel but top a tough European qualifying Group 7.
Serbia suffered just two defeats - away to France and Lithuania - in finishing ahead of France, Austria, Lithuania and Romania for an automatic spot in South Africa.
Since taking over, Antic turned around and strongly pulled together a team previously plagued by clashing vanities and, reportedly, interests of shadowy managers pulling strings to push their players into the squad in order to raise their price.
"He revived the cult of the national team and all players now take it very seriously," said Serbian defender Mladen Krstajic, who took part in the 2006 World Cup.
Antic built his team around big stars with an immaculate work ethic. Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Bane Ivanovic are in the heart of the defence, Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic is in midfield and Serbia's top up-and-comer, CSKA Moscow's Milos Krasic, plays up front.
Antic has fitted around them other players in top teams through Germany, Italy and Spain such as strikers Nikola Zigic and Marko Pantelic.
Serbia's defence took a big hit in late April when Sevilla's Ivica Dragutinovic was ruled out for the rest of the season and the World Cup with a torn Achilles tendon.
Serbia, who have picked up the nickname Beli Orlovi (White Eagles), have been drawn in the World Cup Group D along with Australia, Germany and Ghana.
The coach: Radomir Antic, 61, took over Serbia with the reputation of a crisis coach and the only man ever who had led the big Spanish three of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. Before becoming a coach, he played for Partizan Belgrade, Fenerbahce Istanbul, Real Zaragoza and Luton in England.