The World Cup is never going to include the 32 “best” soccer teams in the world the way its set up with the six FIFA federations splitting up the berths, just like the NCAA Tournament will never be comprised of the
64 68 best college basketball teams in America. This year in Brazil, however, the field of 32 is very solid. Aside from Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and Sweden) failing to qualify there isn’t exactly a team sitting on the outside looking in that is going to be readily missed outside of its national borders.
FIFA’s World Rankings are generally worthless, but according to the current standing the highest team to miss out on Brazil is Ukraine at No. 16. Ukraine is also the highest-ranked non-qualifier in ESPN’s slightly more scientific Soccer Power Index. Given the political turmoil in the country, Ukraine this year would have been compelling but not exactly for its on-field performance or star power although Andriy Yarmolenko is fun to watch, albeit not even close to a household name outside his country or even New York Times style-section approved soccer hipster pop-up salons.
The likes of Denmark, Serbia, Paraguay and Scotland missing out? The tournament will live without you guys, no offense. Egypt, had it not drawn against Ghana in the African playoffs, also could have produced a fascinating human-interest type tale between the post-revolution unrest and American Bob Bradley coaching the Pharaohs, but alas, sports doesn’t always cater to television-magazine narrative-friendly features.
Overall, it’s reasonable to say the field of 32 in Brazil is about as strong as possible given the constraints.
The last couple weeks I’ve been thinking about the best potential national team to miss out on Brazil and came up with my answer. Problem is, it’s a nation which began splintering in 1991 and played it’s last official match under its former name in 2003: Yugoslavia.
For the sake of this post, let’s leave the political side of the Yugoslavian breakup and resulting civil wars out of the discussion, without sticking our heads in the sand and pretending the those wars and result atrocities didn’t happen. As you’ll notice the diaspora resulting from the Balkan wars of the 1990s will impact European soccer for years to come with the children of those displaced by the civil wars starting to appear on various national team rosters across the continent, notably 2014 qualifier Switzerland.
The breakup of the former Yugoslavia produced five new national sides: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia, along with Serbia and Montenegro, which kept using the Yugoslavia name until 2003. The latter two nations split after the 2006 World Cup upping the total of ex-Yugoslav national teams to six. Kosovo, too, has its own nominal “national team” however it isn’t recognized by UEFA or FIFA. In addition there are countless players scattered across Europe with Yugoslavian ties who technically could play for the team were it to still exist.
Historically, a united Yugoslavia wasn’t the greatest team ever assembled, but it was hailed for its technical quality and reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup and it won the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal (and also had a run from 1950 to 1962 when it was a top eight finisher in each World Cup). Post-breakup, success for Yugoslavia has been mixed. Serbia/Yugoslavia played in both the 1998 and 2006 World Cups. A Davor Suker-led Croatia team placed third in France ’98 and qualified for each subsequent World Cup but 2010. Slovenia qualified for both the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, becoming one of the smallest nations to do so. Meanwhile Bosnia and Herzegovina makes its finals debut in June.
Combining these potential players — deep-rooted hostilities aside — would produce a team that might not win the World Cup, but would be a trendy outsider choice to make a run into the knockout rounds.
Here’s a glimpse of some of the better known names (to nerdy soccer fans anyways) who could feature for a hypothetical Yugoslav team.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
GK Asmir Begović (Stoke City), Mid. Miralem Pjanić (Roma), Mid. Senad Lulić (Lazio); Mid. Sejad Salihović (1899 Hoffenheim); For. Edin Džeko (Man City); For. Vedad Ibišević (Stuttgart)
Def. Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Def. Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Mid. Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Mid. Ivan Rakitić (Sevilla), For. Mario Mandžukić (Bayern Munich), Mid. Ivan Perišić (VfL Wolfsburg), For. Nikica Jelavić (Hull City)
Mid./For. Stevan Jovetić (Man City), For. Mirko Vučinić (Juventus), Def. Marko Baša (Lille)
For. Goran Pandev (Napoli)
Def. Branislav Ivanović (Chelsea), Mid. Nemanja Matić (Chelsea), Mid./For. Adem Ljajić (Roma); Def. Neven Subotić (Borussia Dortmund); Def. Matija Nastasić (Man City)
GK Samir Handanović (Inter Milan), Mid. Valter Birsa (AC Milan); Mid. Josip Iličić (Fiorentina), For. Tim Matavž (PSV Eindhoven)
In addition, here are some of the potential players who’ll participate at the World Cup with Yugoslav ties:
Switzerland: Xherdan Shaqiri (born in Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanian); Granit Xhaka (born Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanian); Haris Seferović (Bosnian parents); Pajtim Kasami (Born in Macedona, Albian roots). Australia: Mile Jedinak (Croatian heritage, played professionally there); Belgium: Adnan Januzaj (Father is from Kosovo); Germany: Marko Marin (born in Yugoslavia).
Assemble a starting XI however you please, but there are two excellent keepers to work with in Begović and Handanović. The bulk of the defense can be comprised from the Serbians like Ivanović and Subotić. The midfield gives you so many options, either for silky skill from Modric and Rakitić or grit from Matić. At forward there are no shortage of options with Mandžukić, Jovetić or Džeko.
Would this team be mentioned alongside the likes of Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Germany and Italy? Probably not, but it would be a rung right below depending on its draw. Today’s Croatia-Brazil match, if it were Yugoslavia against the Brazilians, would definitely be among the heavy duty matches of the Group stage.
Without any further adieu, a most hypothetical World Cup Yugoslav starting XI (4-3-3):
Defender: Srna — Subotić — Lovren — Ivanović
Midfielders: Rakitić — Modric –Matić
Wingers: Shaqiri — Januzaj
Subs: Begović, Pjanić, Perišić, Vučinić, Jovetic, Lulic, Salihović, Seferović, Mandžukić, Jedinak, Kasami, Nastasić
On paper, anyway, that’s a team that could make a run to the quarterfinals if not a round further.