Cold War National Teams in 2019: Yugoslavia

Howdy lads, and welcome to the fourth and final part of our modern-day Cold War XIs. For those of you who read the first three articles and are somehow still here for a fourth, I commend you, and I wish I had more friends like you in real life. The final team we’re looking at is Yugoslavia, the country everyone wishes we had back without realising what a mess that would be. And yes, some of the other teams I created were pretty dull and uninteresting (here’s looking at you, Czechoslovakia), but I promise, for once we’re actually looking at some decent players.

For those of you too young to remember the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia (such as myself), here is a very simplistic view of what is was: it was a socialist state (a ‘utopia’ as some would have you believe) made up of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and the autonomous region of Kosovo. These nations were all united under one common banner: an unquestioned love of socialist ideology.

Unlike the other nations on this list, however, Yugoslavia didn’t conform to Socialism in the post-war Stalinist ideology. Despite also coming into being in the wake of the Second World War (in the sense of being a socialist state at least), the Tito-Stalin split in 1948 saw Yugoslavia become its own independent socialist state, and not a puppet state of the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the country was sparked after rumblings of independence-based protests after the death of Tito, the charismatic leader who oversaw this socialist haven, in 1980, and the illusion of political unity was shattered in the early 1990s, resulting in long and bloody wars of independence, until eventually all 6 sovereign states were recognised as such, and Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The Yugoslav football team itself produced a wealth of talent, but only ever produced moderate results on the international stage. They did, however, reach the World Cup semi-finals in 1930 (as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, before the socialist era) and 1962, and were runners-up in both the 1960 and 1968 European Championships, before hosting the 1976 edition. That was about as good as it got for the national team, although at club level, Red Star Belgrade stunned the footballing world by winning the 1991 European Cup, which featured a near-all Yugoslav XI including stars such as Robert Prosinečki and Darko Pančev.

Yeah this actually happened, please don’t adjust your screens

Since its dissolution, Croatia have had the most notable success on the international stage, finishing as surprise runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, and coming in at third place at the 1998 tournament. Serbia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have also qualified for major tournaments since independence, but none have had the same wealth of talent at their disposal as the Croats have. 

But would the red-and-white checked shirted men be even stronger with the quality the other nations around them possess? Well, firstly, they wouldn’t be playing in red-and-white checked shirts, since the checkerboard pattern (the šahovnica) is a symbol of Croatian nationalism, so they would most likely be playing in the predominately blue kits they played in under socialist rule. No-one needed to know that, but it seemed like a point worth making.

Anyway, how good would a modern-day Yugoslavia team be? Let’s find out!

P.S. Yes, I’m very aware that all these nations still hate each other after the wars of independence, but this is purely for a bit of fun, and if we’re not allowed to have fun in this cruel and bleak universe, then that’s just quite sad. Let’s just meet the squad.

Goalkeepers: Jan Oblak, Samir Handanović & Dominik Livaković 

The three choices between the sticks are thankfully the easiest to pick from for this squad.

For the title of the Yugoslav number one, it’s pretty clear that Jan Oblak is the obvious choice. One of the world’s best goalkeepers and commanding an elite defence at Atlético Madrid, Oblak is Slovenia’s first-choice goalkeeper, has won La Liga’s Zamora Trophy for Best Goalkeeper in each of the past 4 seasons, and it appears as though he will be one of the top three goalkeepers in world football for at least the next six or seven years.

As back-up, we’re enlisting the services of Oblak’s fellow Slovene, Samir Handanović. Handanović actually retired from international football in 2015, but he remains Slovenia’s second-highest all-time appearance-maker, with 81 caps. At club level, he has been playing week-in, week-out for Inter Milan since 2012, even winning the title of Serie A’s best goalkeeper last season. He may not be providing direct competition for Oblak here, but in the scenario of Oblak being injured due to some sort of freak accident, Handanović is a more than capable back-up who brings a wealth of experience with him.

The third and final goalkeeper in this squad is a bit tricky, since Yugoslavia has a fair few reliable third-choice keepers to pick from. Had his career not plummeted off a very steep and jagged cliff two years ago, the obvious choice would be Bosnian Asmir Begović, but you can currently find him playing football in Azerbaijan, and nowhere close to this team. Actual choices here would be Croatian Danijel Subašić, who is still going strong at Monaco at the ripe old age of 35, but retired from international duty after the 2018 World Cup. Serbian Marko Dmitrović has recently emerged as a contender after some stellar performances with Eibar, and Kosovar Arijanet Muric has a bright future ahead of him. My pick for Yugoslavia’s third-choice goalkeeper, however, is Croatian Dominik Livaković. Currently starring for an over-performing Dinamo Zagreb side (where he is also vice-captain) and the Croatian national side, Livaković most likely won’t be getting many (or any for that matter) minutes on the pitch ahead of Oblak and Handanović, but he would be a solid reserve choice for any top side.

Full-Backs: Šime Vrsaljko & Aleksandar Kolarov

I’ll be honest, when it comes to the defence, this is the downfall of Yugoslavia. It wasn’t the death of Tito; it was their inability to produce world-class talent at the back. If Nemanja Vidić was still playing then maybe things would be a lot better, but he isn’t, so this what I have to work with.

In terms of full-backs, the Yugoslav team has some quality, but is sparse in terms of depth, meaning that I’ve only picked two out-and-out full-backs to represent them in this squad, although some of my other picks do possess the ability to play at full-back as well, so if you don’t see them in this section, fear not, they’ll probably be making an appearance later on.

Bombing up and down the right flank, we have Croatia’s Šime Vrsaljko. Although he’s struggling to get game time ahead of Kieran Trippier of all people at Atlético Madrid at the moment, he’s still been a consistently dependable right-back for both the Spanish giants and the Croatian national team. He also doesn’t have a whole lot of direct competition for his position, without meaning to offend Sporting Lisbon’s Macedonian superstar Stefan Ristovski. 

On the left side of the defence, Arsenal’s Bosnian beast Sead Kolašinac can consider himself very unfortunate to miss out not just on a place in the starting XI, but also in the squad. He has his critics, yes, and could certainly be more reliable on the defensive side of things (not exactly great for an experienced defender, I know), but he is a capable attacking full-back with a dangerous delivery. My choice for the team though, is Serbian captain Aleksandar Kolarov. You’ll probably remember Kolarov best for his time at Manchester City, where he won not only two Premier League titles, but also my heart with his no-nonsense defending and wicked left-footed free-kicks. Even at 34, he is a main-stay in a highly-talented, if somewhat underperforming, Roma team.

Centre-Backs: Dejan Lovren, Branislav Ivanović, Vedran Ćorluka & Domagoj Vida

If you were pulling your hair out over the lack of full-backs, then the versatility of at least two of these choices should put your minds at rest. This is also the area of the park where calling up retired players comes in handiest, otherwise the team would arguably have a defence that would struggle at a bottom-half Premier League club.

My two first-choice centre-backs for this team would undoubtedly have to be Croatia’s Dejan Lovren and Serbian superstar Branislav Ivanović. The self-proclaimed best defender in the world, Lovren may have severe delusions of grandeur about his ability, but that doesn’t mean he’s an entirely useless player. He was a rock-solid centre-back for Southampton, which earned him a move to Liverpool, where he has become a dependable partner for Virgil van Dijk, and a European champion. He also wouldn’t have 57 international caps and been a mainstay in a team that reached a World Cup final, if he didn’t have any top qualities about him. His partner for this team, Ivanović, on the other hand, may be winding down his career at Zenit St. Petersburg, but remains one of the two best centre-backs Yugoslavia has to offer. Which is quite worrying when you take a step back and think about it. Also a world-class right-back (told you!) at his peak, Ivanović was a regular staple in a dominant Chelsea side for eight years and has won every domestic piece of silverware there is to win. Unless you’re counting the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, which for the sake of the previous sentence, I am not. On top of that, he’s also featured twice in the PFA Team of the Season and represented Serbia at two World Cup finals, earning over 105 caps for them in the process. He is a more than justified inclusion in this squad.

This is where things get tricky, because there aren’t many other players to pick from when it comes to back-up centre-backs. Dipping into the pool of Slavic mediocrity, I could have selected any one of Slovenian captain Bojan Jokić, Bosnian ever-present Ermin Bičakčić, or forgotten former Manchester City duo Stefan Savić and Matija Nastasić. However, my choices are two dependable players from Croatia’s 2018 World Cup shenanigans; Vedran Ćorluka and Domagoj Vida, who, for the sake of satisfying this writer’s ego, can both also operate at right-back. Ćorluka is perhaps best remembered for being a decent squad member of Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham side of the late 00’s, but he has since forged a successful career at Lokomotiv Moscow and has tallied up 103 caps for his national team. Another player who has since hung up his international boots, Ćorluka would still bring bags of experience and reliability to this team. Vida, meanwhile, may also have been part of the Croatian team that stopped football coming home that glorious summer, but personal grievances should be put aside to appreciate a competent and versatile defender who completes a solid, but not spectacular, Yugoslav defence.

Central Midfielders: Luka Modrić, Sergej Milinković-Savić, Miralem Pjanić, Marcelo Brozović & Ivan Rakitić 

If the defence of this squad would struggle against the likes of Alexander Sørloth and Dominic Solanke on a regular basis, the midfielders could arguably form the basis of a Champions League winning side. The lack of defenders isn’t just down to the lack of quality in the area, it’s also down to the fact that this Yugoslav team has so much midfield quality to speak of it physically saddens me to think that this team will never play together in the real world.

Going with a midfield trio, we kick off with the diminutive magician that is Luka Modrić. Despite being the most undeserving Ballon d’Or winner in recent memory (perhaps ever), Modric’s quality is still unprecedented. Now aged 34 and showing no signs of slowing down, Modrić remains an integral part of both the Real Madrid and Croatia setup, with 127 international caps to his name. His game has it all, being able to win the ball back, spread the play with pinpoint passing, and even chip in with the odd wondergoal or two. In a team stacked to the brim with world-class midfielders, he remains, arguably, the first name on the team sheet and is the most likely candidate to be captaining this side. He still didn’t deserve that Ballon d’Or though.

Why

Partnering him in the centre of midfield, I think the inclusions of Serbian superstar Sergej Milinković-Savić and Bosnian bulldog Miralem Pjanić make for a well-rounded midfield trio that is capable of effectively winning the ball back and creating chances from deep, with Milinković-Savić as more of a defensive pivot due to his height and physicality, and Modrić and Pjanić either side of him. All three of these guys certainly have their critics, but on their day they’re unplayable, and playing them together propels Yugoslavia into having one of the world’s best midfields at their disposal.

That leaves the remaining squad players to fill in, and when I tell you the two back-up (yes, that’s right, back-up) midfielders the team have at their disposal are Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozović, I understand if you want to stop reading this and nope out of here at the prospect of imagining such an incredible set of players to pick from. Considering I’ve had to also cut out Luka Milivojević, Nemanja Matić and Milan Badelj, I can further understand if the prospect of this squad is a bit much to handle. But the Croatian duo come in to the squad, and considering they both operate similarly to the afore-mentioned first choice midfielders, they could just as easily slot into the midfield as any of the other three could, making for one heck of a rotational dilemma. Maybe if the Slavs spent more time developing world-class defenders instead of producing the same type of midfielder over and over again, they could compete right up there with the best.

Attacking Midfielders: Dušan Tadić & Mateo Kovačić

The attacking midfield part of the Yugoslav squad may not be as ludicrously stacked as the more central area, but it still speaks volumes about the quality of the talent they have at their disposal when Kevin Kampl, Filip Duričić, Adem Ljajić and Bersant Celina don’t even come close to making the final squad. In terms of creative midfield options further up the pitch, Dušan Tadić and Mateo Kovačić are easily the two main choices.

Since leaving Southampton in 2018, Tadić has been a such a revelation at Ajax that Saints fans probably reach for the nearest toaster every time they have a dip in the bath. The Serb did only score 23 goals in all competitions for Southampton, but he always chipped in with a bucket-load of assists and added flair in an otherwise lacking forward line. In his first season in the wastelands of the Eredivisie, however, he won the domestic double, was on the cusp of a Champions League final, scored 34 goals and assisted 20 more, earning himself a Ballon d’Or nomination in the process. The man has been a revelation over the last year, and he slots straight into a midfield already packed with world-beaters.

In the event of Tadić breaking a metatarsal or engaging in illegal cockfighting, or something else that prevents him from playing international football, Chelsea’s midfield maestro Mateo Kovačić is more than capable of filling in. Yes, his numbers aren’t even close to what Tadić produces on a regular basis, mostly down to the difference in quality of the respective leagues they play in, and that Kovačić operates as a versatile midfield option for Chelsea who they can call upon when a position needs filling. An excellent passer and elegant on the ball, that’s the role Kovačić will play in this Yugoslav squad as well.

Wingers: Filip Kostić & Ivan Perišić

Ok, so I might be going with a 4-3-1-2 formation (finally some variation!) but for the purposes of flexibility and rotation, I’m throwing a couple of wingers in here too. Again, not to be regulars in the first XI, but because these two players aren’t just a pair of wingers – their versatility will be invaluable to the team if they ever find themselves in a tight spot. And given the back line they have to work with, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. As far as out-and-out wingers go, Edin Višća, a staple of both the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team and Istanbul Basasksehir this past decade, Dinamo Zagreb’s breakout star Mislav Oršić, and Kosovar superstar Milot Rashica, Werder Bremen’s top goalscorer so far this season, can all consider themselves unlucky to miss out on the team, and if we were picking a squad that had wingers in a more prominent role, they’d all be battling it out for a spot in the team. But we’re not, so here we are.

More like OUR-slav Oršić, am I right? Anyone? He’s not in the team anyway

The first of our two ‘wingers’ is Filip Kostić of Serbia. Although primarily deployed on the left wing by his national team, Kostić had a stellar season playing as a left wing-back for Eintracht Frankfurt in their 2018/19 run to the Europa League semi-finals, scoring 10 goals and assisting 12 in all competitions that season. As you may have gathered, this means he can also double-up as a left-back in case of injury or fatigue to the aging Kolarov, which means he is not only an adaptable and well-rounded squad player, it also further proves that I wasn’t kidding about the ability of several Slavic players to play as full-backs, and that satisfies me. 

Croatian star Perišić, meanwhile, has been one of the finest players to come out of the country this decade, but despite starring for Wolfsburg, Inter Milan and now Bayern Munich, as well as scoring 26 goals (including one in the 2018 World Cup final) in 88 caps for the national team, he hasn’t really appeared to ever get the credit he deserves. Creative, attack-minded, and with an eye for goal, Perišić is a highly talented winger who can also be a force as an attacking midfielder, and in this squad he can prove to be a useful back-up in both positions.

Strikers: Edin Džeko, Josip Iličić, Andrej Kramarić, Luka Jović & Aleksandar Mitrović

The final part of this squad, the key to the modern-day Yugoslavia team being a force of nature in international competition. If they had no good attackers to pick from, it would be a complete waste of midfield talent, but fortunately they have a juicy selection of players to stick up front. So juicy in fact that Mario Mandžukić, a goalscorer in the 2018 World Cup final, Montenegro’s star forward Stevan Jovetić, as Macedonian legend Goran Pandev, all miss out on a place in the squad. Some of the players who have made it in may shock and surprise you, but this squad isn’t coming together in the real world any time soon and there are more pressing issues than that to be worrying about.

The one problem with this selection of strikers is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety in the type of striker on offer – yes, if you wanted to stick a couple of target men up top to hold the ball up and score a load of headers then this selection is about as good as it gets. But with as dynamic and creative a midfield as the one we’re working with, and without wingers, we’re either overly reliant on full-backs or overly reliant on the midfield to create chances themselves. Or maybe I’m just overthinking everything, these strikers can actually score goals with their feet after all. Anyway, the selection.

The two players predominantly leading the line will be Bosnian captain Edin Džeko and Slovenian star Josip Iličić. Perhaps underappreciated at club level, despite scoring 281 goals throughout his career, Džeko has won two Premier League titles, a Bundesliga title, and is his country’s all-time record goalscorer (58) and appearance holder (107). It may be that Manchester City fans preferred the glitz and swagger of Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez week-in, week-out as opposed to Džeko’s more physical style of play, but he still scored 72 goals for the club, and the fans surely can’t forget the four goals he scored in one afternoon at White Hart Lane in 2011. He slots straight into the starting XI, alongside Josip Iličić, for the main reason that he can come deeper and help create space for Džeko and Tadić to run into. There’s also the fact he scores a lot of goals. With 32 goals and 18 assists since joining Atalanta in 2017 (at the time of writing), as well as 4 goals in 10 games for Slovenia in 2019, Iličić has just started hitting his peak, and even if he is 31 now, his creative output is more than beneficial to this squad.

As far as back-up strikers go, the three Yugoslavia have at their disposal in this squad certainly isn’t the worst bunch they have to pick from. We’ll start off with Andrej Kramarić, whom you may remember from his two half-seasons at Leicester City, where he scored a grand total of 4 goals before being shipped off to Hoffenheim and made to sit out the Foxes’ 2016 Premier League title win, which I’m sure he’s still fuming about. What he’s probably not fuming about, however, is how he has since been rejuvenated since joining the German outfit, where he’s currently scored 99 goals in all competitions for them, and is also a regular in the Croatian national side. Leicester fans are probably furious at the club for letting him go so soon. Or not, they’re doing just fine without him.

The final two picks for the squad are controversial for two different reasons; Luka Jović only making it to the bench, and Aleksandar Mitrović making it in the squad at all. But hear me out, lads. Firstly, Jović; yes, Real Madrid wouldn’t have paid €60million for him if he was completely useless (although they did sign Julian Faubert on loan that one time), and yes, he had an incredible 2018-19 season for Eintracht Frankfurt, scoring 27 goals in 48 appearances. However, that’s literally the one good season he’s had as a professional footballer, with his next best tally having been 9 in 2017/18 and mustering only 2 goals for the Serbian national team so far. Did Real Madrid jump the gun in forking out so much for him? Maybe, but he’s still only 21 and has plenty of years left ahead of him, and I’m sure he’d be able to carry the talent he’s shown at club level to the international stage when it’s needed. As for Mitrović, I know what you’re all thinking; he’s barely cut it in the Premier League and a squad as creative as this shouldn’t be giving chances to a striker stuck in the second tier of English football. Thing is, he’s still scored 22 goals in the Premier League for both Newcastle and Fulham, on top of the 13 goals in 17 games he’s already netted for Fulham this season, and the 23 in 22 he’s scored for Serbia over the past 2 years. He’s also somehow still only 25 years old, so he’s (hopefully) only going to carry on scoring as he hits his peak. Say what you will about this Serbian duo, they certainly do have class about them and are a welcome addition to the team.

Tito would be proud of the team he’d claim to have built

And there you have it, lads, that’s the squad I would pick if Yugoslavia still existed. As usual, the starting XI and bench can be shown by the football pitch I drew in MS Paint to avoid copyright. If we’re also going with a manager, current Croatia boss Zlatko Dalić is the obvious choice, since he has just lead them to a World Cup final. And since the former Yugoslav capital was Belgrade, let’s just assume they’d play their home matches at the Rajko Mitić Stadium, named after the legendary Red Star Belgrade striker. Just to satisfy those of you who were left wondering.

In my opinion, this team could easily go far at a major tournament, given the wealth of talent and creativity they have at their disposal. However, an aging and underwhelming backline would most likely cost them when it came to the latter stages of a major tournament. A shame really, as one or two world-class defenders would arguably make them into potential world beaters. If it’s any consolation to any Slavic sympathisers out there, this is easily the best team from the east to come out of this series, so make of that what you will. 

And there you have it folks, 4 former countries, 3 teams that completely unintentionally ended up playing the exact same formation and a multitude of reasons to wish for the return of socialism later and we’ve reached the end of the series. It’s been emotional, but I’m not one for speeches. Also, this isn’t actually the end of the series. Bazinga, am I right? If you read the series introduction closely, you’ll know that, in the not-too-distant future, the five Cold War teams that have been constructed on this site will compete against Europe’s modern-day footballing nations to see how well they (probably) would fare at Euro 2020! It’s gonna be big, it’s gonna be confusing, and it’s probably going to be a massive waste of everyone’s time, but due to having no career prospects I have nothing better to do.

Thanks for reading! Good night, and good ebening. 

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