Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: The Making of Serbia's World Cup Poster Boy

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 17, 2018

B/R

Gunter Jacob went to Serbia intending to sign one member of the Milinkovic-Savic family and came home having signed another one.

It was May 2014, and Jacob was in Belgrade on a scouting mission for Belgian club Genk. He was interested in Vojvodina's towering 17-year-old goalkeeper, Vanja Milinkovic-Savic.

Vojvodina were playing Jagodina in the Serbian Cup final at Partizan Stadium. Vanja was not involved, but Jacob went to watch the game anyway. And he fell in love with Vanja's older brother, Sergej.

"I watched the game, and after about 20 minutes, I called my general director [Dirk Degraen] and said, 'Listen, I know I'm supposed to be here for a guy named Milinkovic-Savic," Jacob told Bleacher Report. "I really want him, but it's not the goalkeeper. It's the other one.'

"He moved very intelligently on the pitch, and every time he touched the ball, he either kept it or played it first time to another player. Some guys speed up the game by running very fast, but he could speed up the game by playing one-touch football.

"The other scouts were telling me, 'He looks a bit slow and clumsy.' But for me, it was love at first sight."

Vojvodina won the game 2-0 to lift the Serbian Cup for the first time. It was the perfect way to mark the club's centenary year. As the celebrations began, Jacob made a beeline for Milinkovic-Savic's mother. She arranged to meet him again at a restaurant the following day with both of her sons and their agent, former Serbia striker Mateja Kezman.

SAMARA, RUSSIA - JUNE 17:  Mladen Krstajic, Head coach of Serbia issues intructions to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group E match between Costa Rica and Serbia at Samara Arena on June 17, 2018 in Samara, Russia.  (Photo by
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Sergej was 19 at the time and had made 13 league appearances in his first season as a professional footballer. Jacob says the midfielder was "kind of surprised" to learn that Genk were more interested in him than his brother, who signed for Manchester United shortly afterwards. But as they chatted in the restaurant, he came around to the idea of moving to Belgium. "I think it was done in a week," Jacob says.


                 

Two months after Milinkovic-Savic signed for Genk, the club changed head coach. Out went Emilio Ferrera. In came Alex McLeish.

McLeish was not immediately won over by the lanky midfielder, and it was not until October that he was given a run in the side.

"I was talking quite a lot about Sergej because, at the beginning, [McLeish] was not really convinced," recalls Jacob, who had a brief spell as sporting director of Olympique de Marseille in 2016. "I had told Sergej that he would be the centrepiece of our team, so when he came to Belgium and it wasn't happening, he was a little bit disappointed.

"I talked to him a lot at that moment and said, 'Your time will come. Just keep working, and you'll see. It will turn out for the good.'

"At a certain point, Alex said, 'Let's put him in for a game, and we'll see what it brings.' He started playing and never went out of the team."

Milinkovic-Savic made 24 league appearances for Genk in the 2014-15 season, scoring five goals. At the end of the campaign, he went to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand and was named the third-best player at the tournament after inspiring Serbia to glory.

Later that summer, he signed for Lazio. Three years on, he has arrived at the FIFA World Cup in Russia with a reported £90 million price tag on his head and a queue of suitors that includes some of the biggest names in the sport.


            

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic stands 6'4", and Vanja, who is now at Torino, is 6'8". With their genes, they were never going to be short.

Their father, Nikola, played professional football in Spain, Portugal and Austria and stood 6'4", while their mother, Milana, was a professional basketball player. Both Sergej and Vanja were born in Spain while their father was playing football there.

Milan Kosanovic got to know both brothers while working as a youth coach at Vojvodina and with the Serbia national team.

Kosanovic first began coaching Sergej in July 2012 following his promotion to Vojvodina's under-19s and says that although the midfielder's talent was readily apparent, his development was hindered by the fact that he had not finished growing.

"His body was still growing at that time, so some of his movements were really slow," Kosanovic told Bleacher Report. "Compared to the other players, he had better technique, and he was more creative in his decision-making. The only weak point in his game was that he was slow, and he didn't like to run."

TURIN, TORINO - APRIL 29:  Sergej Milinkovic Savic of SS Lazio celebrate winning during the serie A match between Torino FC and SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico di Torino on April 29, 2018 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images)
Marco Rosi/Getty Images

Kosanovic had already seen a glimpse of Milinkovic-Savic's disdain for hard work when he spotted his unorthodox approach to a running drill with the Vojvodina under-17s.

"The players had to run eight laps," Kosanovic says. "After the third lap, he hid behind a tree and waited for his team-mates to run a few more laps.

"I saw him, but even though I was the coach of the older team, he wasn't scared or worried. He just waited for his team-mates and then joined in for the last lap."

Milinkovic-Savic's love of football could not be doubted, though—while playing for Vojvodina's youth teams, he would sign up for futsal tournaments under a false name—and when he stopped growing at the age of 18, his extraordinary physical qualities began to come to the fore.

"In 2013, he did some spatial awareness tests at the Institute of Sport and Sports Medicine," Kosanovic recalls. "He had the best results out of every athlete who played a ball sport. It meant that he saw things half a second before every else, which you can see on the pitch when he plays. That was the moment when I knew that great things were going to happen in his career."

Kosanovic worked as an assistant to Serbia coach Veljko Paunovic at the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2013 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup that followed two years later. Serbia won both tournaments. Milinkovic-Savic started every game but one in 2013 and was Serbia's star player in 2015.

"After his first training session [with the Serbia under-18s], Sergej said to me that he was a maestro and would be playing in every game," Kosanovic says. "He is a born winner, but he is also a person who stands with both feet on the ground."


               

Tall and strong, Milinkovic-Savic seems to possess an innate sense of football geometry. He is a master of taming high balls and regularly confounds opponents with deft nudges and turns, with his gangly frame creating the illusion that he will be easy to dispossess, only for a perfectly timed touch to take the ball away just as the defender thinks that he has it.

The Paul Pogba comparisons, though unhelpful, are understandable. But not everybody was immediately seduced the first time they saw him.

"I watched him for the first time in a junior European qualifier, and he was disastrous," Serbian journalist Vladimir Novak recalls. "Maybe he had stage fright or nervousness, but I was thinking, 'What is this guy doing in the starting XI?' He looked tall. He looked clumsy. He was possibly the worst player on the pitch."

When Novak watched Milinkovic-Savic at the European Under-19 Championship in 2013, his impressions were a little more positive. In Serbia's opening match, against Turkey, the midfielder almost scored with a shot from the halfway line.

The step up to the senior Serbia side has been far from straightforward. Milinkovic-Savic received his first call-up from Radovan Curcic in October 2015 but fell out with Curcic's successor, Slavoljub Muslin, who was appointed in May 2016.

Muslin called up Milinkovic-Savic for friendly games against Cyprus, Israel and Russia in the spring of 2016 and reportedly told him he would be playing alongside Nemanja Matic as a defensive midfielder in a 3-4-3 formation. The Lazio man is said to have responded by saying he wanted to play in a more attacking role. Muslin sent him away from the squad and never picked him again.

Serbia's midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic takes part in a training session at the Samara Arena in Samara on June 16, 2018 on the eve of the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Costa Rica and Serbia. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)
MANAN VATSYAYANA/Getty Images

Muslin oversaw a successful FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, steering Serbia to the top of their group ahead of the Republic of Ireland and Wales, but Milinkovic-Savic's continued absence from his squads remained a source of disquiet within the Football Association of Serbia.

In October, exactly three weeks after Serbia secured a place at the World Cup, Muslin was sacked, with Mladen Krstajic taking over. Milinkovic-Savic duly returned to the fold and was given a place in Serbia's World Cup squad. He impressed in Serbia's opening 1-0 win over Costa Rica, but having scored 12 goals in Serie A for Lazio last season, he will know he is expected to scale much greater heights in Russia this summer.

"He has extra pressure because he's aware of the fact that Muslin was practically sacked because of him," Novak says. "He's in the team now, in the first XI. He has to deliver."

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