Russia World Cup 2018: The start of a new era for Serbian football

    Story highlights

    • Serbia is up against Costa Rica, Switzerland and Brazil in this year's World Cup in Russia
    • The country hasn't qualified for any tournaments since 2010
    • The national team beat Nigeria 2-0 in an international friendly earlier this week

    (CNN)A modest football ground in suburban London was the destination earlier this week for two teams heading for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The international friendly between Nigeria and Serbia was an important staging post for both teams as they finalize preparations for the tournament.

    Just down the road in north west London, England were hosting Italy in a friendly that drew a crowd of 82,000 at Wembley, but the game between Nigeria and Serbia was lower key, barely half filling The Hive stadium with a crowd of 5,100. But the fans in attendance still generated a lively atmosphere.
      It would be a tough game, the Nigerian side not only hadn't lost a game since last June, it also boasts a strong sense of team spirit.
      "They've got such a simple blueprint of building the team unity," Nigerian fan Michael Oshineye told CNN Sport before the game. "We use that word quite a lot but it's probably the best phrase to explain what we have right now."

      The start of a new era?

      For Serbia though, fans have grown disillusioned with the team's failure to qualify for any international tournaments since 2010.
      However, this years World Cup qualification marks the start of a new era for Serbian football -- and for the first time in a long time, morale among fans is high.
      Serbian fans arrived at the stadium proudly wearing Serbia's colors of red, blue and white.
      "We've got the strongest team and the strongest men," one Serbian fan, Alex Saveljic, boasted.
      Strong the players may be, but since qualifying -- and with less than three months left before the tournament in Russia begins, Serbia's management is still experimenting and establishing not only it's tactics, but itself as a team.
      And while that may not entirely be a bad thing -- as Nigerian coach Gernot Rohr says, matches like these act as a "laboratory" for coaches to test players and systems ahead of the World Cup -- but for Serbia, some of its recent changes have been questioned by fans.
      Just three weeks after successfully leading the team into qualification Serbia's coach, Slavoljub Muslin, was sacked and replaced with former footballer, Mladen Krstajic. Muslin was criticized for not injecting fresh blood into the team -- especially the likes of talented Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who's turned heads with dominant displays in Italy.
      "The change of manager happening right now is very strange," Football Association intermediary, Michael Di Stefano says. He once worked with the Yugoslavia national football team before the nation's dissolution.
      "There's a lot of politics. A lot of people say in Serbia that Muslin was fired because he didn't give Milinkovic-Savic a chance to play on the team."
      Not only has Serbia's coach changed since qualifying for the World Cup, but when Krstajic took the reins, he shook things up even more and stripped Branislav Ivanovic of his long-term captaincy and announced that former Manchester City defender Aleksander Kolarov would take his place.
      It was announced in March that former Manchester City defender, Aleksander Kolarov would take Ivanovic's place as captain.
      "Say whatever you want about Ivanovic, he's been a good professional," Di Stefano says.
      "These changes really shouldn't be happening so close to a World Cup. In theory it should be a team that qualifies for the World Cup should be the team that carries through to the World Cup because they had a long way to come back from."
      Since then, Krstajic has led the team into two friendlies as part of the team's World Cup warm up, but failed to secure a win against Morocco on March 23 after experimenting with the team's formation. It left fans feeling concerned about all the recent changes.
      Serbia's national team players at the World Cup qualification match against Georgia back in October, 2017.
      Milos Dusanovic, who runs the Twitter account @SerbianFooty says it's worrying that Krstajic still isn't sure what he wants to do and is experimenting so close to the tournament.
      "It would be great to have some consistency. Hopefully the team can mesh and adapt to a new system before June."

      Serbian coach hits back at critics

      On Tuesday, however, Krstajic gave fans reason to trust his management and to remain hopeful thanks to a 2-0 win against Nigeria.
      Mladen Krstajic, manager of Serbia looks on during the International Friendly match between Nigeria and Serbia at The Hive in London's Barnet.
      Aleksandar Mitrovic -- a fan favorite who's played for the Serbian national team since 2014 -- scored both goals.
      Mitrovic, Di Stefano says, is loved among fans not only for his performance, but because he was born in the country: "He's a true Serb."
      Overjoyed by the win, the crowd invaded the pitch as soon as the final whistle was blown. Fans leaped over the barriers and ran onto the field, on a mission to get selfies with the players.
      Serbian fan, Biljana Ptrovic told CNN Sport after the match that she thought the team's performance against Nigeria was the best they could do.
      "I was especially happy that Mitrovic scored two spectacular goals," she said, wrapped in Serbia's flag. "He's my favorite player!"
      She said that improvements had been made since their last friendly against Morocco.
      "On their previous match they didn't click very well... so they tried a couple of different things and it worked much better tonight and let's hope that's the spirit they will carry on for the World Cup."
      Krstajic hit back at critics during the after-match press conference: "They showed plenty of character against Nigeria and the display made it clear the critics were hasty in their remarks after the Morocco defeat."
      "We controlled the game from the first minute and didn't give them any chance of play," he told reporters.
      "Despite the fact that these are friendly matches and the score is not the most important thing, we come from a very specific country, Serbia, where every match is looked upon as a final and as such it was very difficult to motivate the team after the match where we lost unfairly against Morocco.
      "But, the guys showed character and proved they are ready to play for the national team. We are moving forward, an important job is ahead of us."
      Krstajic also weighed in on Mitrovic and his winning goals.
      "For me personally it's a great pleasure to have a player such as Mitrovic in our squad and it's a pleasure to train him because he's a killer up front which proved today."
      Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates his second goal during the International Friendly match against Nigeria.
      Nigeria, however, were somewhat thankful for their first loss in over six months.
      "I'm smiling because it's good for us to lose a game," coach Rohr said. "If we won again today my players and some people will believe that we will be the world champions, so it's good to lose a game."
      Stand-in captain Ogenyi Onazi also told reporters that the friendlies have been important in building the team.
      "We've learned a lot and there's still a lot for us to still do ... We're getting closer to exactly what we really want to do and in time we'll be prepared and know how to face our opponents (in the World Cup)."

      How far can Serbia go?

      While all Serbian fans are hopeful, when asked how far they realistically think the team will go, most say they're just grateful the team has finally qualified once again.
      In June, the team -- which is currently ranked 34th in the world by FIFA -- will compete in the group stages against Costa Rica, Switzerland and finally Brazil -- the toughest of the three.
      "If you want my honest opinion I don't think we'll go far," Ptrovic said. "But taking part at the moment is important for us because we haven't taken part in eight years, so for us it's a privilege."
      Dusanovic from @SerbianFooty shared the same opinion: "Fans have low expectations since we've been disappointed so often before.
      "The Serbian national team is very unpredictable and most people are just hopeful that we will pass the group. That would be a big achievement for us."
      Most Serbian fans say they're grateful the team has finally qualified for the World Cup once again.
      In order to advance out of the group stages Dusanovic says, Serbia needs to learn how to work together.
      "We need to play as a team and employ a system that works or we will pack up early and head home with another disappointment."
      For Di Stefano, though, while it's too early to tell, on paper the Serbian side is promising.
      "You look on paper and I expect the team to be in the last 16. If they weren't in the last 16 the football gods have screwed everybody, because on paper that's where they should be."
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      The team that could have accomplished it all

      For now, though, he just hopes Krstajic reminds the team of their history. Serbia was once part of Yugoslavia, which reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup before losing to Argentina on penalties.
      At one point, the team was ranked 6th in the FIFA world rankings.
      "As far as football goes, the greatest loss to world football was the break-up of the former Yugoslavia," says Di Stefano.
      "Putting those nations (Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovia, Slovenia and Kosovo) together as footballers, on paper they could have won the World Cup and European Championships. There is so much talent there," Di Stefano says.
      "I hope Mladen is able to remind them of shall we say the history that they come from and maybe that might build some team spirit."