With World Cup 2018 qualifying beginning in Europe this week, Sasa Ibrulj takes a look at where the big Balkan nations currently standing heading into their opening games.K
Serbia: Big expectations for Muslin
Serbia had many memorable moments in their last qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, but none of them were positive and they are now hoping that the opening of qualification for World Cup 2018, with a game against Republic of Ireland on Monday, could represent a fresh start.
They have replaced inexperienced Radovan Ćurčić with 63-year-old Slavoljub Muslin, a former Crvena Zvezda manager who also had his coaching stints in France, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belgiium, Russia, Belarus and Cyprus. Muslin, who won three domestic titles with his Belgrade side, has since made some significant changes to the team, dropping some veterans and introducing a new formation with three at the back.
In three friendlies since Muslin took over, Serbia defeated Cyprus 2-1, beat Israel 3-1 and drew 1-1 with Russia, but it still wasn't enough to impress the fans. This is not the first time that the Serbs have used a managerial change as a solution: they have had seven coaches since Radomir Antić took them to the 2010 World Cup, their last major tournament. This is why Muslin is desperate to beat Ireland in the first qualifier; after all, winning back the fans would be much more significant for Serbia than simple three points.
The FA helped by putting tickets on sale for as little as €3, as well as giving away batches to young fans and football schools. However, performance on the pitch is what is the most important. Individual quality was never an issue for the Serbs, who won the FIFA U20 World Cup in 2015; where they fall short is their approach and lack of team effort.
Muslin will have to improvise in finding a replacement for Chelsea's Nemanja Matic, who is serving a three-game ban, as well as for first-choice left-back Aleksandar Kolarov, who is also suspended. The improvisation in midfield so far has also neutralised some of their creativity; Muslin will have to overcome that.
Another problem is the injury of Luka Milunovic, who started all three friendlies at centre-back. This means that the back three, which includes Branislav Ivanovic, will be playing together for the first time ever. Muslin also tried three different goalkeepers in his three games so far while his strikers have struggled for playing time with their clubs: his current first choice is Newcastle's Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Obviously, the team that will host the Irish is a work in progress and the fact that the public is sceptical, but also carrying big expectations, will not help. Instead of a routine opening qualifier, the Serbs are arguably playing the most important match of the campaign.
Another huge distraction for the Serbs was happening off the field, where they had a political fight to stop Kosovo being recognized by UEFA and FIFA. They failed and now, a province that declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, nine years after a brutal war, was included in the World Cup qualifying draw despite not yet being fully recognised by the United Nations.
Kosovo: Bureaucracy hindering first competitive game
In March 2014, Kosovo played their first official international friendly,. a 0-0 draw against Haiti, and this week's visit to Finland will be another historic moment as their first-ever competitive match. However, the Kosovars have problems that could derail their joy: their late admission to Qualifying Group I and the slow movement of FIFA administrators means that only some of the players called up by coach Albert Bunjaku for this match are available due to the change of sporting citizenship. Eighteen players are eligible to be named to the squad for the Finland match; seven more are still waiting for FIFA permission.
However, this is a historic moment for Kosovo and thousands of their supporters are expected in Turku on Monday night. Both them and their football officials are hoping that the Kosovo team will be stronger for couple of big names by next month, when they host Croatia in Albania, because none of their stadiums meet FIFA requirements.
Croatia: Off-field issues continue to cloud progress
The Croats, favourites to win Group I over Kosovo, Finland, Iceland, Ukraine and their first opponents, Turkey, are everything but immune to the problems. After Darijo Srna retired from international football, manager Ante Cacic decided to name Luka Modric as the new captain but his promotion will not be a memorable moment for the Real Madrid midfielder: the Croats host Turkey (and Iceland in the next home match) behind closed doors.
The Croats are repeat offenders; they served a ban during Euro 2016 qualifying, playing Italy behind closed doors because of racist chants and flare throwing. However, there was bizarre incident at that match as well, when someone used chemicals to imprint a swastika on the pitch days before the fixture in Split's Poljud stadium. Officials were unable to cover up the symbol and it became visible during the match.
Croatia were deducted one point but repeated racist chants in friendlies against Hungary and Israel locked the doors for the fans in the qualifiers. If there was any doubt as to how big a problem this is, fans showed the extent of it at Euro 2016, when they threw flares on to the pitch, interrupting their match against the Czech Republic in St. Etienne.
Three months ago, Croatia dominated Turkey and defeated them with ease in Paris at Euro 2016. Cacic hopes for the same this time around but the fact that Fatih Terim changed a lot in the meantime and that they are forced to play without any fans calls for caution.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Don't take qualifying for granted
Mehmed Bazdarevic and his Bosnia and Herzegovina must be cautious as well. They are opening their campaign as the favourites against Estonia in Zenica. Two years ago, they were in a similar situation after they returned from their first major tournament, the 2014 World Cup, but lost to Cyprus and eventually failed to qualify for Euro 2016.
This time they're promising not to underestimate the opposition. A good start is very important for the team led by prominent players like Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic and Asmir Begovic, all of whom want to take their country to their second consecutive World Cup.