Off we go to the crossroads of Central and Eastern Europe. But first, as always, the rundown.
The FIVB consider Serbia to be the descendant of the old Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro programs, as do most (if not all) international sport sanctioning bodies. That definitely gives them a pretty good history. As Yugoslavia, they were the Olympic champions in Sydney in 2000, after also claiming bronze in Atlanta four years prior. They’ve been a fixture at the CEV European Championship, with nine all-time medals, two golds, and have just twice failed to medal since 1995. They’ll be the defending champions at the event later this year. They’ve never won gold at the World Championship, but are the reigning bronze medallists there, and will surely be back to try again next year. They played at last summer’s London Olympics, but finished tied on a distant 9th place (fifth in their pool, not advancing from the preliminary round) with the Australians.
With the notable exception of tennis star Novak Djokovic, Serbia’s most popular sports tend to be team sports. Leading the way, as always, is soccer, with basketball, water polo, and yes, volleyball, following close behind. Serbia is home to a professional league, but most of the players on the men’s national team don’t play there. The only one who does is setter Mihajlo Mitić, and that might simply be because he’s one of the youngest players on the team. Most team members play in Italy’s vaunted Serie A1. Once again, the national federation’s website is in a language I can’t even fake reading (I can give it a shot in 2 weeks with France, but I’ll do much better once Cuba roll around). Here it is, in case anyone wants to brush up on their Serbian.
Other notable players include longtime setter Vlado Petković, a veteran of Serie A1 and numerous national team selections. He’s one of only a few players with experience that dates back to the Serbia and Montenegro days (the two nations became distinct in 2006). Another is outside hitter Bojan Janić, who served as floor captain at last year’s World League. Middle blocker Dragan Stanković currently plays club for Macerata in Italy, one of the world’s most respected sides at the club level. Same for fellow middle Marko Podraščanin. The Serbs, currently holding the FIVB World Ranking of 7th while being one of the youngest teams in the world (Janić, at 31, is their oldest player), are coached by Igor Kolaković.
So are we looking at a winner?
I really don’t think so. They’ll of course be better than Iran and could make some hay against Germany as well, but to advance to the finals they’ve got to be better than at least one of Russia, Italy, or Cuba. With no real reason not to bring your A-team this year, I can’t see how those aren’t the three teams to advance to the finals from Pool B.
But this is perhaps the pick so far that I can most easily see myself being wrong about. Their young roster is only getting better and they’ve got some players with great professional pedigrees. Honestly it’ll most likely come down to them or Cuba to move on, because Russia and Italy are just a cut above.
So while “predicting a surprise” is of course a contradiction in terms, I won’t be blown away if Serbia happen to find their way to the finals. Medalling….yeah, that might be ‘blown away’ territory. Realistically, the Serbs should (and I’m sure do) view this as an important step on their road to Rio. They’ll have a young core that will reach their peaks in three years and change, so watch this team with an eye for the future.