Miloš Marković –
The 21-year-old Sergej Milinković-Savić is sitting on the bench at the Užice City Stadium in the spring of 2016. Waiting. Hoping. Saša Zdjelar and Marko Grujić are next to him. With a childish exuberance in their eyes, the three Under-20 teammates barely sit still in front of an opportunity to be given their first senior appearance as a reward for the New Zealand heroics.
Mere months after they climbed the top of the world after beating tournament favourites Brazil in an eye-catching final of the Under-20 World Cup, Milinković-Savić, Zdjelar and Grujić joined Andrija Živković, Nemanja Maksimović and Predrag Rajković on Slavoljub Muslin’s 28-man list ahead of the international friendlies against Cyprus, Israel and Russia.
Pallid and disheartened after missing out on the EURO 2016 in France, Serbia seemed to be at the beginning of a new era, one that was supposed to usher a generation shift and announce the aforementioned ‘Golden Eagles’ sextet as Serbia’s hope for a brighter future.
Nemanja Maksimović and Marko Grujić got the nod against Cyprus in Užice. Sergej Milinković-Savić did not. Yet, he seemed patient.
He hoped that a game against Israel in Novi Sad would offer him a chance to make his Serbia debut in front of family and friends who came flocking to the stadium he was quite familiar with. It would have been a wonderfully symbolic occasion. Karađorđe Stadium was where he grew as a player, wearing a Vojvodina shirt as a talented youth prospect from 2006 to 2013 and achieving his first-team recognition in the following year before swiftly leaving for Genk. But Milinković-Savić hadn’t been even named as a substitute for that game.
A losing battle for a place in the team
His patience ran dry. The talented midfielder was not even willing to wait for the match against Russia in Monaco. He knocked on Slavoljub Muslin’s door seeking for an explanation, ultimately packing his bags and leaving the national camp early. Disappointed. Disgruntled.
Rigid and reserved Slavoljub Muslin did not take Sergej’s actions kindly. Who did he think he was? Immediately labelled as hot-headed and lacking respect, Milinković-Savić was told he was an ‘undefined player who did not fit into the system’ yet the truth was a bit different. Slavoljub Muslin’s choices as a Serbia boss would go on to prove the veteran head coach lacked tactical versatility, courage and vision that could allow him to harness the undeniable talent of now the Lazio superstar.
“I will call Sergej Milinković-Savić when he becomes better than other players he has on our roster”, was one of the comments Slavoljub Muslin offered to explain the inexplicable.
A new beginning for Sergej Milinković-Savić
Sergeant, as they call him in Italy, used the two-years of Muslin’s stubbornness wisely.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2018; the 6″ ft 4″ midfielder is standing on top of the world he conquered with sublime displays in a Biancocelesti shirt.
The auspices of Lazio head coach Simone Inzaghi allowed Sergej Milinković-Savić to reach worldwide recognition in leaps, as the Serb made a visible improvement to his on-pitch discipline, decision-making, creativity and vision.
Now a mature box-to-box midfielder with imposing physical tools that enable him to dominate the middle third and at the same time pierce forward, Sergej Milinković-Savić is a world star in the making.
Symbolically, he stands as the main reason Slavoljub Muslin got sacked despite guiding Serbia to a direct World Cup qualification ahead of Republic of Ireland and Wales. The Serbian FA could not sit on their backside with entire world wondering how a player of such stature and quality was deemed redundant, so they decided to wield the axe.
“Did you know Sergej Milinković-Savić is not a part of the Serbian national team?”, Alessandro Costacurta asked in a popular Italian TV show. “He is a fantastic player, and I had to look around to see who were those other players keeping him out of the squad. And to tell you the truth, apart from Nemanja Matić, I did not recognise any of them.”
Serbian supporters, punditry and the general public, had all been equally puzzled but then to a great extent relieved when Muslin’s successor Mladen Krstajić reinstated Sergej Milinković-Savić and voiced his intention to make the Lazio man one of the backbones of the team heading to Russia.
Possibly a €100 million player now, he stands at the beginning of an essential chapter in his life as a professional footballer.
What’s on the other side of the hill?
Sergej is well settled in Italy where he feels loved and respected, but a narrowly missed opportunity to play in the Champions League could prove decisive for his immediate future.
Misperceived as a problematic boy, Sergej Milinković-Savić will be under great scrutiny in Russia with the entire world watching his every step. Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Manchester United are the names of the clubs that would jump to a chance to grab him this summer.
His brother, Vanja, relishes a possibility for his sibling to join him in Turin albeit in a shirt of Juventus, not Torino, where the former Manchester United goalkeeper is playing at the moment. With Manchester United reportedly priced out of a deal for the sergeant and PSG under the watchful eye for last summer’s overspending, however, the possibility is emerging that Milinković-Savić could join Juventus.
But there are two crucial questions. Can Bianconeri afford him? Would Sergej be willing to ‘betray’ his club and sign for a league rival?
Juventus are reportedly willing to sacrifice a key member of the squad to gain funds that could help them finance the possible move for the highly rated Serb. As for the second question, a detail from the Serbia training camp can offer a valuable – although not necessarily a decisive – insight.
Having gone through Vojvodina’s youth set-up, Sergej was taught to steer away from the Belgrade giants and fierce rivals, Red Star and Partizan. When a young fan presented him with a Red Star notebook for an autograph after a training session this week, Sergej’s face froze.
“You don’t expect me to sign the Red Star notebook, don’t you?”, he asked the perplexed boy before giving him a smile and a much-desired autograph.
A sign of hope for Lazio fans? An omen for Juventus? Guess we’ll know after the World Cup.
A holder of Master’s degree in English language and literature, Miloš Marković worked as the Editor-in-Chief at Sportske.net. He now contributes to various outlets as a freelance journalist. He also is a member of the Guardian Network and a FIFA correspondent for Serbia. Passionate about English language and football, Miloš Marković is also a huge Liverpool fan. You can find him on Twitter @milosemarkovicu.