by Manuel Veth
Once again England’s World Cup qualification campaign is on the line. A draw or even a loss against Montenegro could tumble England towards the Russian Roulette of qualification play-offs, or even a third place finish in qualification Group H, which would mean England would miss the World Cup next summer.
Montenegro is a small country situated on the Adriatic Sea, yet this small nation has been at the centre of European politics throughout the ages. When Yugoslavia erupted in a bloody civil war in 1992, Montenegro chose to stay within a smaller Federal Republic of Yugoslavia along with Serbia.
In 2003 the old Yugoslav Republic was replaced by a less centralized state union named Serbia and Montenegro. This union would lay the foundation to the eventual independence of Montenegro in 2006.
In 2006 a referendum was held that would decide the independence of one of Europe’s smallest countries. The vote narrowly passed when 55.5% of Montenegrins voted in favour for independence (in order for the vote to pass 55% had to be in favour).
Today Montenegro is a country full of paradoxes. After the Balkan Wars, Montenegro stopped printing money and instead used the Deutschmark as its currency. Today it uses the EURO: Montenegro is therefore one of only a few independent states in Europe that doesn’t have its own currency.
The ethnic makeup of Montenegro is equally confusing. When I travelled through the Balkans in 2008 with my fiancée, at one point we unfortunately found ourselves stranded in a small village due to the bizarre bus schedules. As we had to reach Dubrovnik the same day, we rented a taxi that would drive us for €50 along Montenegro’s cost to Dubrovnik in Croatia.
As we drove through the Montenegrin countryside to the tunes of the Scorpions I asked the taxi driver where he was from. He said he was from Montenegro, but that his parents were Croatian. As we, however, crossed the border into Croatia he produced a Serbian passport.
In my mind this highlights the paradox of today’s Montenegro; it is a very small multi-ethnic state which for its size is extremely good at sports, and especially good at football.
Many observers would be hugely surprised if Montenegro pulls off a win against England at Wembley. People who have, however, followed the rise of the red eagles might not be surprised at all if Montenegro took something at Wembley. To put this in perspective, Montenegro’s population of about 600,000 means that the country has the same population than Liverpool.
Montenegro perhaps has benefitted from the fact that they previously were part of a union with Serbia and prior to that with Yugoslavia. Many of the players of the national team were developed by big clubs in Serbia.
Stevan Jovetic for example is a product of Partizan Belgrade. Other players, such as Fulham defensive midfielder Elsad Zverotic, were born abroad. Zverotic was raised in Switzerland, to which his parents fled during the time of the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s.
But perhaps Montenegro’s biggest star, Mirko Vucinic, was not only born and raised in Montenegro but also played for his local team Sutjeska Niksic before making the jump to Italy in 2000 to play for Lecce. Vucinic has since played for Roma and since 2011 is part of Juventus.
Another interesting name on the Montenegro roster is Fiorentina defender Stefan Savic. In 2011 Savic made the jump to the English Premier League when Manchester City signed him for £6 million from Partizan. Like Jovetic, Savic is a product of the Serbian youth development system. The same is true for young defender Marko Vesovic, who was born in Titograd (the former name of Montenegro’s capital Podgorica) but actually grew up in the Serbian town of Lucani.
Perhaps this is also one of the greatest dilemmas that Montenegro currently faces. The two youngest players in the squad are 22 and most players are currently at the zenith of their careers. Although Jovetic is only 23 this might be the first and last time for a long while that Montenegro might have a chance to qualify for a major tournament.
As a now independent country, Montenegro’s next generation of footballers might not benefit from the better infrastructure of the Serbian football schools.
National league decline
In terms of a national football league, Montenegro faces a further problem. During the state union with Serbia the First League of Montenegro was one of two second divisions within the league pyramid of Serbia. With independence, the former second division became the Montenegrin First League. Today the league is ranked 42nd in Europe right above the Lichtenstein Football Cup and just below the Icelandic Premier League.
It is the last step in the fragmentation of the Yugoslavian football league system, and already the club teams from the former Yugoslav Republics have shown decline. With the loss of infrastructure and success also came a slowdown in talent production. This is bad news for Montenegro in general as the country will probably never again be able to emulate its current success.
What does this mean for England? Well the news is not good. All this has only made Montenegro very aware of the fact that it has to win now in order to achieve the ultimate goal for the country from the Black Mountain.
If the Red Eagles want to soar to a major tournament they have to do it now, and they’ll be determined to do whatever it takes to beat England at Wembley.
Manuel Veth is a contributor to Just Football specialising in the economics and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet football. Read more from him at Futbolgrad and follow him on Twitter @homosovieticus.
The post Meet Montenegro: The Red Eagles from the Black Mountain coming for England appeared first on Just Football.
England v Montenegro (UEFA World Cup Qualifying)
Friday 11 October 2013, Kick-off 20.00 BST
It seems that off-field controversy follows the English national team wherever they go. This time the build-up to England’s crucial World Cup qualifier has surrounded the eligibility of non-English born players for the England team after Jack Wilshere’s comments.
However, on the field of play, England face a tricky encounter against Montenegro at Wembley on Friday night. England currently top Group H with 16 points but are closely followed by Ukraine and Montenegro in second and third respectively with 15 points apiece. Anything less than three points for England would place Roy Hodgson’s side under immense pressure in the final qualifier against Poland.
Hodgson welcomes back strikers Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge after the pair missed September’s qualifiers through injury. England will however be without the injured Ashley Cole, Glen Johnson and Theo Walcott. Everton’s Leighton Baines is expected to fill the left back spot.
Of concern for England will be the drop in form of goalkeeper Joe Hart. The Manchester City shot stopper has come under heavy criticism for his recent displays. Hodgson has however insisted he will persist with his number one, and Sky Bet pundit picks both think Hart should start ahead of John Ruddy and Fraser Forster.
Montenegro have included inspirational captain Mirko Vucinic in the squad despite the forward recently struggling with injury. The Juventus striker picked up a thigh injury in the Champions League 1-1 draw at home to Galatasaray. He has not played since and Montenegro have a number of injury concerns with Vucinic, goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic, centre-back Marko Basa, midfielder Milorad Pekovic and possibly Miodrag Dzudovic all potentially missing from what would be manager Branko Brnovic’s strongest starting XI. Stevan Jovetic is however available and should captain the side.
The Three Lions have remained unbeaten throughout this campaign, drawing four and winning four of their matches. However, England’s only victories have come against minnows Moldova and San Marino. Hodgson’s cautious and rigid approach has taken England this far and they will now require two really good performances to secure automatic qualification. Montenegro with qualification hopes of their own will no doubt be out to spoil the English party.
Portugal v Israel (UEFA World Cup Qualifying)
Friday 11 October 2013, Kick-off 20:45 BST
Portugal host Israel at the Alvalade stadium in a crucial Group F World Cup qualifier. While Israel still have a mathematical chance of qualifying for the play-off round, Portugal are desperate to secure an automatic berth at the World Cup. Should group leaders Russia take three points away at Luxembourg, Portugal would need a result to keep in hunt for an automatic spot come the final day.
Portugal will have to be at their very best if they are to stand a chance of topping the group. Israel held Paulo Bento’s team to a 3-3- draw in Tel Aviv in March. Furthermore, Portugal will be fielding a makeshift defence this time around as Fabio Coentrao is suspended while right backs Joao Pereira and Miguel Lopes, as well as centre back Bruno Alves are all out injured. Zenit St Petersburg’s Luis Neto is likely to partner Pepe in the centre of defence.
Striker Helder Postiga is also out suspended and once again Portugal’s hopes will rest on the broad shoulder of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid forward has four goals in qualifying thus far (including a hat-trick v Northern Ireland) and will aim to propel his side to World Cup qualification.
The Israelis were in with a very real chance of qualification but a draw at home to Azerbaijan and a loss away to Russia has severely dented their chances. Israel will look at back at having only collected two points from their two fixtures against Azerbaijan as the main reason should they miss out on qualification for the play-off round.
There is still no place for veteran midfielder Yossi Benayoun, who has been without a club since the start of the season and has hardly featured in Israel’s qualification campaign.
Portugal have their work cut out but Ronaldo remains adamant his side can qualify for Brazil 2014 automatically. “I remain convinced that we will be able to regain top spot even if our fate isn’t entirely in our own hands,” the Real Madrid playmaker said on Wednesday.
Ecuador v Uruguay (CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying)
Friday 11 Oct 2013, Kick-off 22:00 BST
Equal on points but separated by goal difference, Friday’s encounter between Ecuador and Uruguay will go a long way yo determining who qualifies for the World Cup automatically and who has to settle for the play-off.
After a terrible start to the qualifying campaign, three consecutive victories have left Oscar Tabárez’s squad with much needed momentum heading into the final two qualifiers. They will also be seeking revenge after Ecuador held them to a draw in Montevideo in September 2012.
Ecuadoria’s Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda has named a squad mostly consisting of local players. The tragic early death of Christian Benitez has been a blow to their morale and the players admitted they have struggled to cope since. Ecuador will require four points from their final two fixtures against Uruguay and Chile to secure automatic qualification.
Ecuador will surely be concerned with the recent form of Luis Suarez. The Liverpool forward has returned from his 10-game suspension and is immediately back on the scoresheet. Uruguay’s top scorer thus far in the qualifiers will be partnered by Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani. The former Napoli man will have to tread carefully though as he is one of a few players one booking away from a suspension and missing the final match against Argentina.
Ecuador has failed to win in the previous four qualifiers and vital to their hopes will be the form of Felipe Caicedo and Antonio Valencia. Caicedo has scored six goals in qualification campaign so far. They will however require a flawless performance against on form Uruguay outfit. Tabárez’s charges will look to avoid the play-off round and know full well three points is crucial ahead of a tough encounter against Argentina.
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