Can the Balkans do a World Cup quadruple?
Soccer leagues in the Balkans are suffering from an uncontrolled outflow of talent to wealthier and more competitive environments in Europe and it’s a trend that’s benefiting some of the region’s national teams.
At least three countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia stand a good chance of reaching next year’s World Cup in South Africa.
Serbia, who tightened their grip on Group Seven with a 3-2 win over neighbours Romania, are in the best position after a masterclass performance by Manchester United centre-back Nemanja Vidic and captain Dejan Stankovic, plying his trade at Italian champions Inter Milan.
Serbia have only two home-based players in their squad, which has been given a new lease of life under coach Radomir Antic in their bid to reach a first major tournament as an independent nation.
Even more impressive were Serbia’s bitter Balkan foes Bosnia, who demolished Belgium 4-2 and have an excellent chance of securing a play-off spot in Group Five, where European champions Spain seem untouchable.
The Bosnians, also aiming for a maiden World Cup appearance, are reaping the benefits of having experienced exiles such as Eintracht Frankfurt striker Zlatan Bajramovic, Zvjezdan Misimovic and his 22-year old Wolfsburg team-mate Edin Dzeko, who all scored in their surprise success in Genk.
Croatia may not be able to leapfrog England into the driving seat in Group Six but they should also win a play-off berth available to the eight best second-placed teams.
The Croatians, who finished third in the 1998 World Cup in France, have a wealth of experience in a squad chasing a seventh major tournament appearance in eight attempts.
Slovenia, who faded into oblivion after back-to-back appearances in Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, are in contention for one of the top two spots in a delicately balanced Group Three.
Even the Macedonians are in with a shout for a runners-up spot in Group Nine, where the Dutch have imposed their authority, while Montenegro — newcomers to the world soccer map — have no chance in Group Eight.
How many of these teams will come through at the end of a long and demanding road to South Africa?
Can the Balkans produce a unique treble or even a quadruple, or will the region’s participation in the finals boil down to the usual one or two teams? Give us your thoughts.
PHOTO: Bosnia’s Zlatan Bajramovic (L) celebrates with team mate Zvjezdan Misimovic (R) after scoring against Belgium during a World Cup qualifier at the Fenix stadium in Genk March 28, 2009. REUTERS/Yves Herman