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Bridging the gap: Balkan football enjoying remarkable resurgence

The Balkan Peninsula – characterized as comprising the countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia – is a hotbed of talent, albeit one traditionally viewed by many as a second-rate footballing region given its clubs’ and countries’ struggles to exert wider influence upon higher-profile European counterparts.

Well, that gap is closing in 2018.

The resurgence has been headlined, of course, by Croatia’s run to the World Cup final this summer and Luka Modric being named both the tournament’s Golden Ball winner and the Best FIFA Men’s Player. However, it goes far deeper than that. Not since the days of Hristo Stoichkov, Gheorghe Hagi, Davor Suker, and Predrag Mijatovic has this pocket of Europe boasted so much talent.

Historical success

Though largely overshadowed by the continent’s footballing superpowers, the Balkan game has had its fair share of highlight moments. In the 1960s, Yugoslavia was twice runner-up in the fledgling European Championship and placed fourth in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, while Partizan Belgrade faced Real Madrid in the 1966 European Cup final. The 1970s were bookended by Greek giants Panathinaikos and Partizan’s archrivals Red Star reaching European Cup finals. In the 1980s, Romania’s leading club, Steaua Bucuresti, repeated that feat twice, winning in 1986. Five years later, in 1991, Red Star became the last team outside of western Europe to win the continent’s leading club competition, before Croatia enthralled the world on its way to a third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup.

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Getty

Since that Suker-inspired Croatian side 20 years ago, however, football in this region has fallen by the wayside, taking a back seat to controversies over supporters’ unseemly behavior and behind-the-scenes corruption. Individual players have shone – think Nemanja Vidic’s nine major trophies with Manchester United and Modric’s ever-rising star. However, little else – on the pitch, at least – has made headlines. In fact, arguably the most headline-worthy player of Balkan heritage in nearly two decades has been maverick Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Contemporary challengers

That’s all changed in recent times, led by a wave of success at both international and club level. Croatia was seen by some in western Europe as a plucky underdog fighting its way to the World Cup final, but in truth, a team containing Real star Modric, key Barcelona cog Ivan Rakitic, Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic, and Inter pair Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic was well-deserving of the berth. Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina are top of its Nations League B group with a 100 percent record, while unbeaten Serbia and an impressive Montenegro side occupy the first two places of their C-level pool.

There has been a tangible shift at club level, too, led by Red Star’s return to the Champions League after 26 years away. After impressively seeing off Red Bull Salzburg on away goals in the playoff round, the 1991 winners were drawn in the most daunting of groups, handed Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, and Liverpool as opponents. They have refused to wilt, however, despite thrashings at the hands of both PSG and Liverpool, and have earned four points from four games – just two off the pace – after holding the Neapolitans and famously stunning the Reds at the fearsome Marakana.

Srdjan Stevanovic / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Meanwhile, Croatia’s most successful club, Dinamo Zagreb, are enjoying their best European season in recent memory, having qualified for the Europa League knockout round with two group games to spare after winning four of four against the likes of Fenerbahce and Anderlecht.

Europe taking notice

It’s not just the region’s own countries and clubs showcasing such talent, however. There’s a Balkan flavor in the upper echelons of each of Europe’s top five leagues. In the Premier League, Croatian defender Dejan Lovren is a cornerstone of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. In Spain, Rakitic is an important man in Barcelona’s midfield, while Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, Stefan Savic, and Nikola Kalinic also hail from the region.

Meanwhile, arguably the Bundesliga’s biggest surprise package this season is Eintracht Frankfurt, a team which has found success largely through its attacking quartet of Luka Jovic, Ante Rebic, Filip Kostic, and Mijat Gacinovic. Those stars – three Serbians and Rebic, a Croatian international – have together scored exactly half of Frankfurt’s 26 Bundesliga goals, as well as six of their 11 Europa League strikes. Jovic, a 20-year-old prodigy tipped by Red Star director Zvezdan Terzic to become the best striker in Europe, is setting Germany alight with a league-leading nine goals in as many league outings. Jovic’s former Eintracht boss and current Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac, himself Croatian, suggested last season that the youngster is the best finisher he has seen since Suker.

Alex Grimm / Bongarts / Getty

It’s in Serie A where the Balkan influence is most apparent, which is perhaps not surprising given Italy’s proximity to the area. Across the league’s top five clubs, there are over 20 players from the region holding first-team roles. Lazio lead the way with eight, including captain Senad Lulic, midfield star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and Kosovo’s Valon Berisha.

Even outside the top five teams and the below list, the likes of Roma’s Edin Dzeko (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Aleksandar Kolarov (Serbia), and Fiorentina’s Serbian center-back Nikola Milenkovic have consistently starred in the division.

Team Player (Position) Country
Juventus Mario Mandzukic (F) Croatia
Juventus Miralem Pjanic (MF) Bosnia and Herzegovina
Napoli Nikola Maksimovic (DF) Serbia
Napoli Elseid Hysaj (DF) Albania
Napoli Orestis Karnezis (GK) Greece
Napoli Vlad Chiriches (DF) Romania
Napoli Marko Rog (MF) Croatia
Inter Samir Handanovic (GK) Slovenia
Inter Sime Vrsaljko (DF) Croatia
Inter Marcelo Brozovic (MF) Croatia
Inter Ivan Perisic (FW) Croatia
Lazio Thomas Strakosha (GK) Albania
Lazio Dusan Basta (DF) Serbia
Lazio Stefan Radu (DF) Romania
Lazio Adam Marusic (DF) Montenegro
Lazio Valon Berisha (MF) Kosovo
Lazio Senad Lulic (MF) Bosnia and Herzegovina
Lazio Milan Badelj (MF) Croatia
Lazio Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (MF) Serbia
Milan Ivan Strinic (DF) Croatia
Milan Alen Halilovic (MF) Croatia

Production line

The future looks in good hands, too, with plenty to celebrate at youth level. For a start, the Under-21 teams of Croatia, Serbia, and Romania all summited their respective Euro 19 qualifying groups, with Greece and Bosnia not far behind.

Then, there are the region’s famed academies, led by that of Dinamo Zagreb. The club now holds the distinction of boasting the most representatives at a single World Cup, as 14 players within Croatia’s squad played for the team at youth or senior level. Dinamo are just the most cited example, however, of a Balkan pool also including Croatian rivals Hajduk Split (notable graduates include Slaven Bilic, Igor Tudor, Darijo Srna), and Serbian giants Red Star (Kolarov, Vidic, Dejan Stankovic) and Partizan (Savo Milosevic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Stevan Jovetic).

A huge proportion of the Balkan stars currently lighting up European football or making names for themselves as precocious talents have their roots in academy systems from across the region. Led by the likes of Serbia starlets Milinkovic-Savic, Jovic, and Milenkovic, and Croatian up-and-comers Duje Caleta-Car, Tin Jedvaj, and Marko Pjaca, there is a new generation waiting to take over from Modric and Co.

With Balkan talent now firmly on the western European radar, 2018 may be just the beginning of a long-term shift on the continent.

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