Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: The Making of Serbia’s World Cup Poster Boy | Bleacher Report

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Gunter Jacob went to Serbia to sign a member of the Milinkovic-Savic family and came home after signing another.

It was May 2014 and Jacob was in Belgrade on a fact-finding mission for the Belgian association Genk. He was interested in Vojvodina’s towering 17-year-old goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic.

Vojvodina played against Jagodina in the Serbian Cup final at the Partizan Stadium. Vanja wasn’t involved, but Jacob watched the game anyway. And he fell in love with Vanja’s older brother Sergei.

“I saw the game and after about 20 minutes I called my general manager [Dirk Degraen] and said, “Look, I know I should be here about a man named Milinkovic-Savic.” Jacob told Bleacher Report. “I really want him, but it’s not the goalkeeper. It’s the other one.”

“He was very intelligent on the field and every time he touched the ball he either kept it or played it to another player for the first time. Some people speed up the game by running very fast, but he could Speed ​​up the game by playing. ” One touch soccer ball.

“The other scouts said to me, ‘He looks a little slow and clumsy.’ But for me it was love at first sight. “

Vojvodina won the game 2-0 to win the Serbian Cup for the first time. It was the perfect way to celebrate the club’s 100th anniversary. As the festivities began, Jacob went to see Milinkovic-Savic’s mother. She arranged to meet her two sons and her agent, former Serbian striker Mateja Kezman, in a restaurant the next day.

SAMARA, RUSSIA - JUNE 17: Mladen Krstajic, head coach of Serbia, gives interventions to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic during the group E match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia between Costa Rica and Serbia at Samara Arena on June 17, 2018 in Samara, Russia.  (Photo ofMaddie Meyer / Getty Images

Sergej was 19 years old at the time and had played 13 league games in his first season as a professional footballer. Jacob says the midfielder was “a bit surprised” to learn that Genk was more interested in him than his brother, who signed for Manchester United shortly afterwards. But while they were talking in the restaurant, he got the idea to move to Belgium. “I think it was ready in a week,” says Jacob.

Two months after Milinkovic-Savic signed for Genk, the club changed head coach. Emilio Ferrera went out. Alex McLeish came in.

McLeish wasn’t immediately won over by the lanky midfielder, and it wasn’t until October that he got a run on the team.

“I talked a lot about Sergei because at the beginning [McLeish] wasn’t really convinced, “recalls Jacob, who worked for a short time in 2016 as sports director of Olympique de Marseille.” I had told Sergei that he would be the heart of our team so when he came to Belgium and it wasn’t when he happened he was a bit disappointed.

“I talked to him a lot at that moment and said, ‘Your time will come. Just keep working and you will see. It will turn out for the best.’

“At one point Alex said, ‘Let’s put him in a game and we’ll see what it brings.’ He started playing and never left the team. “

Milinkovic-Savic played 24 league games for Genk in the 2014/15 season, scoring five goals. At the end of the season, he went to New Zealand for the FIFA U-20 World Cup and was named the third best player of the tournament after inspiring Serbia to glory.

He signed for Lazio later that summer. Three years later, he arrived at the FIFA World Cup in Russia with a prize of £ 90 million and a string of applicants including some of the sport’s biggest names.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is 6’4 “and Vanja, who is now in Turin, is 6’8”. With their genes, they would never be short.

Her father, Nikola, played professional football in Spain, Portugal and Austria and stood 6’4 “while her mother, Milana, was a professional basketball player. Both Sergej and Vanja were born in Spain while their father played football there.

Milan Kosanovic got to know both brothers while working as youth coach in Vojvodina and in the Serbian national team.

Kosanovic started coaching Sergej in July 2012 after he was promoted to the Vojvodina U19. Although the midfielder’s talent was evident, his development was hampered by the fact that he hadn’t finished growing yet.

“His body was still growing at the time, so some of his movements were very slow,” Kosanovic told Bleacher Report. “Compared to the other players, he had better technique and was more creative in making decisions. The only weak point in his game was that he was slow and didn’t like running.”

TURIN, TORINO - APRIL 29: Sergej Milinkovic Savic of SS Lazio celebrate the victory during the Serie A game between Turin FC and SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico di Torino on April 29, 2018 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Rosi / Getty Images)Marco Rosi / Getty Images

Kosanovic had already glimpsed Milinkovic-Savic’s disdain for hard work when he discovered his unorthodox approach to running an exercise with the Vojvodina under 17.

“The players had to run eight rounds,” said Kosanovic says. “After the third lap, he hid behind a tree and waited for his teammates to do a few more laps.

“I saw him but even though I was the older team’s coach, he wasn’t scared or worried. He just waited for his teammates and then played the final lap.”

Milinkovic-Savic’s love of football, however, could not be doubted – while playing for Vojvodina’s youth teams, he signed up for futsal tournaments under an assumed name – and when he stopped growing at the age of 18, his extraordinary physical qualities began to come in the foreground.

“In 2013 he carried out some spatial awareness tests at the Institute for Sport and Sports Medicine,” recalls Kosanovic. “He had the best results from any athlete who played any ball sport. That meant he saw things half a second before anyone else, what you can see on the field when he plays. That was when I was knew these great things would happen in his career. “

Kosanovic worked as assistant to Serbian coach Veljko Paunovic at UEFA European U19 Championship 2013 and the subsequent FIFA U-20 World Cup two years later. Serbia won both tournaments. Milinkovic-Savic started every game but one in 2013 and was Serbia’s star player in 2015.

“After his first training session [with the Serbia under-18s], Sergei told me that he was a maestro and would play in every game, “says Kosanovic.” He’s a born winner, but he’s also a person who has both feet on the ground. “

Milinkovic-Savic is tall and strong and seems to have an innate sense of football geometry. He’s a master at taming tall balls, regularly mistaking opponents for skillful thrusts and turns, his lanky body creating the illusion that he will be easily dispossessed, just for a perfectly coordinated touch to take the ball away, like that as the defense attorney thinks he has it.

The comparisons with Paul Pogba are not helpful, but understandable. But not everyone was seduced the first time they saw him.

“I saw him for the first time in a European junior qualifier and it was disastrous,” recalls Serbian journalist Vladimir Novak. “Maybe he had stage fright or nervousness, but I thought, ‘What is this guy doing in the starting XI?’ He looked big. He looked awkward. He was possibly the worst player on the pitch. “

When Novak saw Milinkovic-Savic at the European U19 C.In 2013, his impressions were a little more positive. In Serbia’s opening game against Turkey, the midfielder almost hit with a shot from the center line.

The rise to the Serbian national team was anything but easy. Milinkovic-Savic was first convened by Radovan Curcic in October 2015, but dropped out with Curcic’s successor Slavoljub Muslin, who was appointed in May 2016.

Muslin called on Milinkovic-Savic to play friendly matches against Cyprus, Israel and Russia in the spring of 2016, telling him that he would play alongside Nemanja Matic as a defensive midfielder in a 3-4-3 formation. The Lazio man reportedly replied that he wanted to play a more offensive role. Muslin sent him off the roster and never selected him again.

Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic takes part in a training session at the Samara Arena in Samara on June 16, 2018, on the eve of the Group E soccer match of the 2018 World Cup between Costa Rica and Serbia.  (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)    MANAN VATSYAYANA / Getty Images

Muslin oversaw a successful FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, leading Serbia to the top of its group ahead of the Republic of Ireland and Wales. However, Milinkovic-Savic’s continued absence from his squad continued to cause concern in the Serbian Football Association.

In October, exactly three weeks after Serbia secured a place in the World Cup, Muslin was released and Mladen Krstajic took over. Milinkovic-Savic duly returned to the group and received a place in the Serbian World Cup squad. He impressed in Serbia’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica, but after scoring 12 Serie A goals for Lazio last season, he will know he is expected to reach much greater heights in Russia this summer.

“He’s under additional pressure because he is aware of the fact that Muslin was practically sacked because of him,” Novak says. “He’s on the team now, in the first XI. He has to deliver.”

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