Dusan Vlahovic ready to help Serbia innovate at World Cup |  World Cup 2022

Dusan Vlahovic ready to help Serbia innovate at World Cup | World Cup 2022

Milan Ristic knew what to do when it looked like Dusan Vlahovic was about to fall through the cracks. The striker was 14 years old but his gifts were legendary in the Serbian youth football scene and, increasingly, far beyond. Partizan Belgrade had tried to sign him after graduating from Altina Zemun, a local academy, but couldn’t reach an agreement with the player’s family.

Then Vlahovic was taken to the neighboring OFK, where a brief spell ended in disagreement. Shortly after, Ristic, a Partizan youth coach, learned that Vlahovic had been spotted kicking a ball alone at his local stadium. The boy needed to play, not have his talent wasted while adults were arguing around him. Ristic jumped straight into the car with his colleague, influential talent developer Dusan Trbojevic, and drove fast.

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It’s a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years, the Guardian has reported on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is collected on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football homepage for those who want to dig deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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“I’ve seen and worked with many players,” Ristic says. “But he was the only one that I could tell, at first glance, was ultra-talented. Some kids are bigger, faster, stronger, but only with Duci could I say immediately that he would be a great player.

That was why the boy needed a good home. The high-speed journey was not in vain: this time everyone shakes hands and Vlahovic’s fledgling career resumes its course.

It has since ignited and the thrill for Serbia, who start their World Cup against Brazil on Thursday, is that they have a truly top-notch striker in their ranks. Vlahovic was the hottest name in Europe last winter, moving from Fiorentina to Juventus in January, and his form has held up even during a period of relative instability for the Bianconeri.

He is a born goalscorer and, more than that, a multi-faceted leader. It’s hard to believe he’s 22, but it’s not strange to think that if he stays fit and healthy over the next few weeks, his team has a fighting chance for innovation. “I can’t remember the last time our team looked so good and full of confidence,” said Sava Petrov, who played alongside Vlahovic in the celebrated Partizan youth team.

Dusan Vlahovic shoots for Serbia against Sweden in Nations League
Vlahovic is likely to be a threat to Brazil in their World Cup opener. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP

Petrov, who is two years older than Vlahovic and plays for Radnicki Nis, remembers when excited whispers turned into loud, confident proclamations. This was after Vlahovic, playing for Partizan U15 side coached by Ristic, scored four goals against bitter rivals Crvena Zvezda – Red Star – despite missing a penalty. “That’s when people started talking about his name widely,” he says. “Everyone could see there was something that set him apart from others of his generation.”

This had long been evident at Altina, who worked with boys aged between seven and 14, and whose youngsters constantly punched above their weight. Vlahovic tended to play an age group, but that didn’t stop him from leading the fight. Dragan Perisic, his coach there, recalls a match at Crvena Zvezda when his team talk was actually made for him. “Before the game he gathered our players together and told them: ‘Let’s win, don’t be afraid, we are a good team and we can beat them.'”

Underdogs Altina beat the biggest name in the country 1-0. “He loves games against strong rivals, he likes it when it’s tense,” Perisic said. “When you are a good guy and a quality player, the other team members will respect you a lot. He had that and knew how to use it to improve our team. He never looked for excuses when things weren’t going well. He’s not an impostor.

“There was never a single argument with a team-mate: even when he wasn’t scoring, he didn’t get nervous or yell at others. And when he saw a teammate struggling to score, he passed the ball to him, trying to motivate him to overcome the problem. I liked that very much.

Dusan Vlahovic

Ristic credits Vlahovic with being “the greatest professional I have ever seen…his work ethic exceeds his talent.” He describes Vlahovic, who once tried out for Crvena Zvezda before joining Partizan but failed to impress that day, as a typical Zemunac from the northwestern suburbs of Belgrade. “They don’t say for no reason that the guys from Zemun are tough,” he said. “When the people over there have something planned, they don’t give up until they’ve achieved it, whether it’s in sport or in life.”

Shortly before Vlahovic joined Partizan, Perisic traveled to Italy on a fact-finding mission in Turin. He was surprised to find himself asking questions about his protege: club scouts, as aware as anyone that Serbia’s wealth of young talent is astounding in size, had tracked him in his early teens. They had the right idea but, eight years later, Vlahovic bypassed them by moving to the giants of their city.

Europe’s biggest clubs saw Vlahovic become Partizan’s youngest professional and handed the No.9 shirt a month after turning 16. He had scored his first senior goal in a matter of weeks but would only manage three before Fiorentina surged. The months between his signing of a preliminary contract, made official in June 2017 before the start of his 18th birthday the following February, and his arrival in Tuscany were marred by injuries and understandable turmoil.

Even more frustrating, he couldn’t be registered to play until July 2018. “It was a difficult time for him, his head was in Italy and his body was in Belgrade,” says Petrov, with whom Vlahovic had previously played for Serbia Under-19s. . Ristic said, “He didn’t take that well. Basically, he lost an entire year and he’s the type of player who still wants to play.

Dusan Vlahovic plays for Juventus
Vlahovic has impressed for Juventus despite the club’s struggles this season. Photograph: Pedro Nunes/Reuters

All the lost time has long since been made up for. Vlahovic has scored 44 times in the Italian top flight for The Viola, was named their best young player of 2020-21 and kept his lead above the stormy waters of Juve with better than a goal every two games. He admires Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic: no one can say he’s there yet but there are elements of both in his 6ft 3in frame, his touch, his power and the variation in his finishing.

At Altina, Perisic was keen to hand Vlahovic his team’s No.10 jersey. It was a reward for his performance and supernatural leadership qualities: the coach considered him the most important in football. He passed on the offer to his player but later that night received a phone call from club president Nebojsa Pejovic. Vlahovic had asked if he could keep the No.9 shirt he wore before. “He didn’t want to challenge my authority,” Perisic said. “He had always felt No. 9 was his. And that’s something that describes him very well: as a goalscorer.”

He will have to make do with the No.18 shirt when Serbia take on Brazil; Aleksandar Mitrovic, another Partizan product in exceptional form and six years his senior, shows no signs of giving up his favorite number. The fact that Dragan Stojkovic, the national team coach, can call on two strikers of such caliber bodes very well, although both have been groomed in the build-up to this tournament. Luka Jovic, essentially Vlahovic’s replacement at Fiorentina, isn’t a bad replacement.

Serbia look set up for their best shot to date at the World Cup, an exciting but balanced squad that also includes players such as Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Filip Kostic, although they could face an almighty fight with old enemies, Switzerland, for a place in the round of 16.

Perhaps one of the few things missing from Vlahovic, who scored nine goals for Serbia, is a game-winning contribution against a top national team. This moment cannot be far away. “I think he can show in Qatar why people consider him one of the best young strikers in the world,” Petrov said, although the age qualification could probably be removed from that now. “Everything that happens in his football career has a reason.”

Brazil could still be the next opponent to give in to their inexorable momentum.

Additional reporting by Jovan Terzic

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