Could the 2018 Yugoslavia National Team have won the FIFA World Cup?

In 1992, Yugoslavia dissolved into what is now Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo.  Now let’s pretend that Yugoslavia never broke up into these seven different countries.  Why you ask?  Not so long ago, Yugoslavia had quite a strong national team, as well as being was home to some of Europe’s best football clubs.  Yugoslavia made an impressive run to the quarterfinals in the 1990 FIFA World Cup, as well as having qualified for four straight FIFA World Cups from 1950 to 1962.  The Yugoslavian (now Serbian) powerhouse Red Star Belgrade even won the Champions League in 1991.

Despite the breakup, the Balkan region has still developed world-class footballers.  Croatia and Serbia are the only former Yugoslavian countries who managed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, however, almost all the former Yugoslavian countries feature at least one player capable of playing on a World Cup-winning team.

Let’s see who would make the 2018 Yugoslavia Best XI as well as the rest of the 23-man roster and find out if a unified Yugoslavia could have won the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

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Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak

Oblak

Country: Slovenia

Club: Atletico Madrid

In goal would be Jan Oblak.  The only Slovenian to make this starting XI, Oblak is widely considered to be one of the top-five goalkeepers in the world.  The 25-year-old goalkeeper has an incredible combination of youth and experience.  Oblak has led La Liga in clean sheets in each of his first three seasons at Atletico Madrid, recording an astounding 61 clean sheets in 105 matches.  He has also finished runner-up in the 2016 Champions League Final and won the 2018 Europa League Final with Atletico, not to mention winning the Portuguese treble with Benfica in 2013 while taking them to the Europa League final in that same year.

 

Right Back: Sime Vrsalijko

Vrsaljko

Country: Croatia

Club: Atletico Madrid

Vrsalijko has already represented Croatia 37 times and has made appearances in the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cups.  An attack-minded fullback, Vrsalijko perfected his defensive skills in the Italian Serie A where he led Italian minnows Sassuolo to a 6th place finish and Europe League qualification for the first time in their history. His defense was put to the test at one of the most defensive-minded and structurally sounds clubs in the world at Atletico Madrid, where has become manager Diego Simeone’s favored right-back, in place of the Spanish veteran Juanfran.

 

Center Back: Stefan Savic

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Country: Montenegro

Club: Atletico Madrid

Stefan Savic is the third player on our list and so far, we have three Atletico Madrid players from three different countries.  The 2016 Champions League runner-up and 2018 Europa League winner also played 11 Premier League matches with Manchester City in 2012, helping them win their first Premier League title, before spending three years at Fiorentina.  Savic is the only Montenegrin to feature in this Yugoslavia starting XI.

 

Center Back: Dejan Lovren

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Country: Croatia

Club: Liverpool

Dejan Lovren played in every single UEFA Champions League match for Liverpool on their way to the Champions League final in 2018.  The former Lyon and Southampton center back is an extremely physical presence although he is prone to mental errors.  He has played in the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cup for Croatia and is a leader in the locker room.

 

Left Back: Aleksander Kolarov

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Country: Serbia

Club: Roma

Aleksander Kolarov is most known for the seven years he spent at Manchester City, where he won two Premier League titles and an FA Cup.  Kolarov loves to push forward and provide width to the attack.  He also has a deadly left foot which is one of the most powerful in the world.  The Serb is always a threat to shoot from distance or from a free kick because of his striking technique and power and is equally adept at whipping in fierce crosses from the wing.

 

Defensive Midfield: Nemanja Matic

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Country: Serbia

Club: Manchester United

Nemanja Matic quickly became regarded as one of the best holding midfielders in the world when Chelsea bought him from Benfica in 2014.  He won the Premier League title in his first full year at Chelsea as well as having been named to the Premier League Team of the Year.  Experts gave Matic much of the credit in Chelsea’s 2015 title-winning campaign for his ability to shield the back line as well as allow playmakers such as Cesc Fabregas to roam freely and focus on the attack.  Matic is also extremely composed on the ball and rarely turns the ball over, making him an undisputed starter in the 2018 Yugoslavia Best XI.

 

Center Midfield: Luka Modric

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Country: Croatia

Club: Real Madrid

He effortlessly glides through the midfield when on the ball, seemingly on ice skates, in search of the killer pass or a shot on goal.  His technique and change of direction leaves players on the floor and makes spectator’s jaws drop.  Luka Modric is one of the best midfielders of our generation and when he retires, will go down as one of the greatest footballers of all time.  Modric was a key part of Real Madrid’s four UEFA Champions League titles in the last five years, and in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he led Croatia to the knockout rounds for the first time since France 1998’.

 

Center Midfield: Ivan Rakitic

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Country: Croatia

Club: Barcelona

Rakitic and Modric are rivals in La Liga but form a dynamic partnership in the Croatian midfield.  Rakitic is not the quickest but makes up for it with a cannon of a right boot.  His range of passing and shot from distance, as well as sublime technique makes him one of the elite midfielders in the world.  The three-time La Liga champion and Champions League winner has been one of Barcelona’s most dependable players, having played at least 50 matches in each season since joining the Catalan side in 2014.

 

Right Wing: Miralem Pjanic

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Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Club: Juventus

If there is one thing the Balkan region produces, it is technically gifted midfielders.  While Pjanic does his best work in the center of midfield where he can have more of an influence with his passing, there is simply too much talent in the 2018 Yugoslavia Best XI to fit him in, so we decided to play him in his backup position.  Pjanic is one of the more underrated players on this list, mainly because he plays for Juventus, a team known for outstanding defense and discipline, rather than fluid attaching play, hindering his creative abilities.  He has been linked for a move to Barcelona for a few years now, where many people think he could become the next Andres Iniesta.  He has won the Serie A on two occasions, but his greatest achievement was qualifying Bosnia for their first FIFA World Cup in 2014.

 

Left Wing: Ivan Perisic

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Country: Croatia

Club: Inter Milan

Perisic is a rangy and versatile winger who can play on both flanks or behind the striker.  At 6’2”, he has a unique combination of size and mobility.  His ability to score a variety of goals, often spectacular and with either foot, makes him a huge weapon (no pun intended) when he cuts in from the wing.  His dynamic attacking play coupled with his ability to track back and help his defenders makes him indispensable in the defensive-minded Serie A, as well as for Croatia.

 

Striker: Edin Dzeko

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Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Club: Roma

Dzeko is the most clinical striker from the former Yugoslavian countries, making him the starting striker on our 2018 Yugoslavian Best XI.  The 6’4” target man has scored 63 goals in 100 matches in his last two years at Roma.  He also has 52 goals in 93 career matches for Bosnia.  Dzeko led Wolfsburg to their first and only Bundesliga title in 2009, as well as playing a key role Manchester City’s first two Premier League titles in 2012 and 2014.  Dzeko has been the top goal scorer in the Bundesliga (2010) and Serie A (2017), as well as being the all-time leading scorer for Wolfsburg and Bosnia.

 

Substitutes

Picking the best XI for a would-be 2018 Yugoslavia team is almost impossible because there are so many players to choose from.  The following players would make up the rest of the 23-man roster for the 2018 Yugoslavia National Team, although many of these players could easily be in the starting XI depending on the opinion, formation or style of play of the manager.

 

Defenders

Center Back/ Right Back: Branislav Ivanovic

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Country: Serbia

Club: Zenit St. Petersburg

Despite playing at right back for most of his nine-year career at Chelsea as well as for Croatia, Branislav Ivanovic is best used as a center back.  One of the most experienced and successful players on our 2018 Yugoslavia National Team, the 34-year-old is extremely dependable at the back and is one of the best at heading away crosses, with a knack for scoring headers on set pieces as well.  Ivanovic was an important player during Chelsea’s most successful era where he won a total of ten trophies, including three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, the Champions League and Europa League.

 

Left Back: Saed Kolasinac

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Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Club: Arsenal

Born in Germany, the 25-year-old played for the German national team 14 times at the youth level before committing to play for Bosnia in 2013.  The hulking fullback made a name for himself Schalke before he made a $17 million move to Arsenal in 2017, where he has also played as a left midfielder.

 

Center Back: Vedran Corluka

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Country: Croatia

Club: Lokomotiv Moscow

The veteran center back has been plying his trade in Russia since 2012 when Lokomotiv bought him from Tottenham Hotspur.  Corluka has played in all three European Championships with Croatia since 2008, as well as the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cup, making his 100th international appearance in the latter.

 

Center Back: Matija Nastasic

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Country: Serbia

Club: Schalke

In 2011, the 25-year-old center back debuted for the Fiorentina at the tender age of 18.  Just a year later, the teenage defender had made an impressive debut for Manchester City against Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.  His impressive performances early on for Manchester City had pushed more veteran players out of the starting XI, and he was even named Manchester City Player of the Month in November.  His last four years at Schalke have been plagued with injury, but Nastasic has all the tools to become a world-class center back in the future.

 

Midfielders

Center Midfield: Mateo Kovacic

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Country: Croatia

Club: Real Madrid

The 2018 Yugoslavia National Team would have had an absurd amount of depth in the midfield, which is why we shoehorned 4 central midfielders into our 4-3-3 formation.  At just 24, the Kovacic has already helped Real Madrid win three Champions League titles.  The gifted midfielder has pedigree too, debuting for Croatian giants Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 16 where he became the league’s youngest ever goal scorer.  At 18 he signed for Inter Milan where he was given the number 10 shirt, previously worn by Wesley Sneijder.  At the age of 21, Kovacic signed for Real Madrid where he has turned into one of the world’s best midfielders.

 

Center Midfield: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

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Country: Serbia

Club: Lazio

At 23-years-old, the 6’4” box-to-box midfielder has been one of Lazio’s most reliable players as he featured in 122 matches in three years for the Roman club.  Not only is he capable of scoring impressive goals with his feet and his head but he has renowned vision and is an excellent passer of the ball. He is also very talented at holding up play when playing further up the pitch, using his physical presence to shield the ball from defenders.

 

Center Midfield: Kevin Kampl

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Country: Slovenia

Club: Red Bull Leipzig

Born in Germany, the quick and creative midfielder has played for Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.  In the summer of 2017, Red Bull Leipzig bought Kampl from Leverkusen with a transfer fee reportedly worth over $23 million.

 

Forwards

Striker/ Left Wing: Mario Mandzukic

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Country: Croatia

Club: Juventus

At 6’3”, Mandzukic has the aerial presence and goal scoring instinct of Edin Dzeko while also possessing the stamina and defensive ability of Ivan Perisic, allowing him to excel both as a striker or left midfielder.  It is tough to put Mandzukic on the bench, as he could easily start in place of both Dzeko or Perisic.  The three-time Seria A winner has also won two Bundesliga titles and a UEFA Champions League with Bayern Munich.

 

Striker: Josip Ilicic

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Country: Slovenia

Club: Atalanta

Ilicic can play on either wing, as well as an advanced midfielder.  The former Fiorentina man operates best as a support striker where he is tucked right behind the number nine and able to use his great vision and technique to play through balls to teammates or have a shot from distance.  The 6’3” hybrid forward is known for his deadly left foot and long-range shooting.

 

Striker: Stevan Jovetic

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Country: Montenegro

Club: Monaco

Jovetic is a gifted and versatile forward whose career has been hindered by injury.  He broke onto the scene with Fiorentina before signing for Manchester City, winning the Premier League title in 2014.  He has since featured for Inter Milan, Sevilla, and has been at Monaco since 2017.

 

Goalkeepers

Goalkeeper: Samir Handanovic

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Country: Slovenia

Club: Inter Milan

Handanovic is an extremely agile shot-stopper who is known for his extremely quick reflexes and acrobatic saves.  He has been Inter Milan’s starting goalkeeper since 2012 and has won Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year in 2011 (with Udinese) and 2013.

 

Goalkeeper: Dalijel Subasic

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Country: Croatia

Club: Monaco

Subasic signed for Monaco in 2012 when they were in the second division. Despite the clubs financial takeover and influx of big money signings, he has remained their starting keeper.  The 32-year-old has the unique honor of having won the French Ligue 2 (2013) and Ligue 1 (2017) with the same club, as well as helping them reach the Champions League semi-finals in 2017.

 

How Good Are They?

The 2018 Yugoslavia National Team has everything a country needs for World Cup success.  Their defenders are some of the most successful and experienced in the world, and their defense is strengthened even more with Jan Oblak in goal.  The amount of world-class, technically gifted, and experienced midfielders at their disposal is uncanny and would easily be the best group of midfielders in the World Cup.  Not only are these midfield maestros excellent in possession, but each of the midfielders named on our Yugoslavia squad is more than capable of scoring goals.  The size, dynamism, and once again, experience, of the forwards and wingers adds to the strength that Yugoslavia would have if they were a unified nation.  If Yugoslavia were to go to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, anything other than a semi-final appearance would be a huge disappointment, and winning it all wouldn’t be beyond them.  Unfortunately, we will never know the potential of what the Yugoslavia National Team could have been.

This 2018 Yugoslavia 23-man roster features 9 Croatians, 5 Serbians, 4 Slovenians, 2 Montenegrins, and 0 Macedonians or Kosovars.  13 of the 23 players have played in the Italian Serie A at some point in their career, mostly due to to the proximity from their native countries to Italy, but also because the Serie A values the disciplined, technical, and tactical style of player that former Yugoslavian countries produce.  11 of the 23 players have played in the English Premier League during their careers, a testament to the physical capabilities and overall quality of this squad.

 

Honorable Mention

Right Wing/ Attacking Midfield: Xherdan Shaqiri

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Country: Switzerland

Club: Stoke City

The only reason Shaqiri doesn’t make the cut on our 2018 Yugoslavia National Team is that we are only including players who currently play for former Yugoslavian countries.  On top of being blessed with one of the coolest names in football, the 5’7” playmaker was blessed with explosive pace and tricky skills.  The Kosovo-born winger moved to Switzerland as a baby and has represented Switzerland since making the U17 team.  Even if he wanted to play for Kosovo it would have been pointless as Kosovo did not become members of UEFA or FIFA until 2016, meaning they did not play official matches.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Enis Bardhi

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Country: Macedonia

Club: Levante

The only Macedonian on our list, albeit as an honorable mention, Bardhi has been a revelation in La Liga since moving from Hungarian side Ujpest FC in 2017.   Bardhi scored two goals in the penultimate match of the 2018 La Liga season against Barcelona.  Levante won the match 5-4, ending Barcelona’s hopes of becoming the first La Liga team to go the entire season undefeated.  Bardhi has quickly become known as one of Europe’s most dangerous free-kick specialists in his lone season at Levante.

 

Goalkeeper: Asmir Begovic

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Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Club: Bournemouth

After five successful seasons at Stoke City, Begovic spent two seasons at Chelsea where he served as Thibaut Courtois’ backup, playing in 33 matches for the Blues.  He has played in every game since moving to Bournemouth in 2017.

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