Veljko Paunovic: The man behind Serbia's under-20 World Cup glory
What was supposed to be a lazy Saturday morning in the Serbian capital of Belgrade turned into a nervous awakening for many in front of television screens. On the other side of the world, in Auckland, New Zealand, the Serbian under-20 team was playing Brazil in the FIFA U-20 World Cup final.
"The best morning show in the history of Serbian television," as the commentator on the national TV put it.
Two and a half hours later, after a 1-1 score at the end of regular time and Nemanja Maksimovic's goal in the 118th minute, Serbs were in a delirium. Carousels of honking cars with flags, people dancing and singing on the streets, some of them even swimming in a fountain. "Srbija je prvak sveta" was echoing through the whole country. Serbia is the world champion.
This was not just a win for youngsters; this was perceived as the light at the end of the tunnel for Serbian football. Serbia have missed the last two major tournaments -- Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil -- and their chances to reach Euro 2016 in France next season are theoretical. When the faith in the national team almost completely disappeared, Veljko Paunovic's boys in New Zealand restored the hope. They had everything their older colleagues lacked for years: discipline, pragmatism, strong character; team and fighting spirit being their strongest weapon. They were mature.
After losing to Uruguay and beating Mali and Mexico in the group stage, the Eaglets -- as the Serbian youth team is nicknamed -- defeated Hungary (in extra time), the United States (on penalties), Mali once again (and once again in extra time) and Brazil in the final (needless to say -- in extra time).
"I believed we could send a message in this tournament," Paunovic said during the tournament. "A message of unity of passion, and playing with heart. And I hope we can ignite our people to start living this style of life after 20 years of struggle and difficult times."
Paunovic, who had a rich playing career representing 11 different clubs -- Partizan, Atletico Madrid, Hannover, Rubin Kazan and the Philadelphia Union among them -- started his coaching career with the under-18 team and continued with the under-19s, inheriting part of the team that won European title in 2013, leading them to the semifinals in the year that followed. He introduced a new approach that put the team first; the individuals were adjusted to fit within the system. He is pragmatic and easily adapts to the opposition, but he built the success around the team spirit and "one for all, all for one" approach. Even though this team lost some important players before the tournament, Paunovic's system was created so it could easily replace individuals.
"We are doing our best to represent Serbia in best possible way," he said. "We want people to respect us, but at the same time, we have to respect our opponents. We do not steal time, we do not dive, that is not the good spirit. We play football and enjoy it!"
Even though Paunovic emphasized the importance of equality in this team, the key roles were distributed even before the tournament started. Red Star prodigy Predrag Rajkovic deserved to be named the best goalkeeper of the event, maintaining top form from the beginning until the last minute. FIFA decided to honour Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Genk, Belgium) as the third-best player, but others caught the eyes of the football world as well. Creative and lucid attacking midfielder Andrija Zivkovic, who is reportedly on the radar of Valencia, Sevilla and Benfica, but still on Partizan Belgrade's payroll, once again proved to be one of the top prospects in world football. And there is no doubt we'll see more from players like Stanisa Mandic and Ivan Saponjic, the latter scoring both his goals during the tournament as a substitute.
Maksimovic (Astana, Kazakhstan) scored the winning goal against Brazil and now adds a, U20 World Cup title to his résumé which included a European U19 title, same as Rajkovic, Milinkovic-Savic, Mijat Gacinovic and Milos Veljkovic. The Serbs were impressive at the back as well, conceding only four goals in seven matches, despite playing extra time in all four games of knockout phase.
To strengthen the bonds inside the team, Paunovic made the most out of social media. He uses Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus to constantly inform players about the matches and football in general; they have access to videos, games, analysis and discussions -- even football trivia -- with the aim of stimulating their knowledge and intellect.
"Internet and social networks allow us to stay together even if physically we are not. It complements and strengthens the field work we do when we are together. It helps us to be united in real time with mobile phones or a tablet. And it does not matter if I am in Madrid [where he lives], or Veljkovic [a Tottenham youth player] in London or Zivkovic in Belgrade. We try to encourage them to [do] fun activities, pictures, drawings or graphics, and the response so far has been excellent. Everyone has a role and has a great time. These techniques help us to have a plugged-in group and make it grow from a distance. In addition, children today spend hours hooked to Twitter or Facebook, so why not use it for the benefit of the team?" Paunovic explained to Spanish daily El Confidential.
When he gathered his team the first time, Paunovic used the film made in honour of the Yugoslav golden generation that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Chile in 1987 to motivate them. The Yugoslav Wars destroyed the country and tore it into seven parts, taking out that generation, with such individuals as Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatovic a chance to flourish on the top stage, at least not together, as Yugoslavia. Twenty-eight years later Paunovic and his fellow Serbs hope this generation will have the chance and be competitive in major tournaments. The fact that the under-21 team is currently playing in the European championship in the Czech Republic -- where they drew Germany in the opening match -- adds even more optimism that the future could be bright for Serbia.
"We can't stop now; we have to keep working and aim to replicate this on the biggest stage," said Paunovic. "I am convinced players from this generation will play important roles for the national team and big European clubs in the next 10 years. For this team it is the time to grow up, to say bye to youth football and focus on the next 10 years."
The most difficult task now in front of Serbs is to make the image of their captain, Rajkovic, lifting the trophy not just part of their history, but their future too.
Saša Ibrulj is a Bosnian freelance journalist who splits his time between Mostar and Stockholm. He contributes to The Guardian, ESPN, The Blizzard, Josimar and others. You can follow him on Twitter @sasaibrulj.