Serbia’s Golden Generation – What Happened to the U-20 World Cup Winners?

Serbia’s Golden Generation – What Happened to the U-20 World Cup Winners?

Miloš Marković –

The year 2015 brought memorable success to Serbian football when the country achieved its greatest international success in New Zealand where Serbia’s U-20 team were crowned World Champions.

The young and talented coach, Veljko Paunović, who led Serbia’s U-20 team, had built an excellent rapport with his players. It was a bond grounded on honesty and decency, and this relationship between Paunović and his team ultimately produced a display of unconditional mutual support that one rarely sees in modern football.

His speech before the final game against Brazil stood out especially, and serves as proof that his methods were the pivotal aspect of Serbia’s historic campaign.

There was much more to the Serbian success than just self-confidence and positive atmosphere, however, as Serbia’s youth selection was also exceptional in raw talent.

The FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand saw this talent unite to a common cause, and the planet witnessed a Serbian team beating the odds to lift the trophy, and step on the pedestal as deserved winners of the competition.

Serbia’s golden generation consists of several highly talented players, and we have tracked their progress since last summer.

Some of them failed to make their presence known and remain out of the spotlight, others have yet to make a noteworthy impression, while a few have gone from strength to strength and are on the path toward great careers.

U-20 World Cup Winners – Those Yet To Make an Impact

Milan Gajić, a versatile defender, who can also be deployed as a defensive midfielder and a right back, moved to FC Girondins de Bordeaux in France from his club OFK Beograd right after the tournament was concluded. He got his fair share of starts at the beginning of the season, and even managed to get his name on the score sheet, but spent most of the second part of the season playing for the second team.

An injury played its part in ending his chance to make a serious impact in his debut season, as he spent three months on the sidelines—he is the one player who is expected to make further progress in the new season.

Saša Zdjelar was the one player, who got huge attention during the FIFA World Cup. Serbia’s big clubs, Red Star and Partizan, targeted this former OFK Beograd defensive midfielder but he opted for a move to Greek side Olympiacos Piraeus.

After months adaptating to his new surroundings, Zdjelar started getting a chance to play having shared the centre of the pitch with Serbia’s senior international Luka Milivojević and even ended up making two Europa League appearances in both ties against Belgium’s RSC Anderlecht.

Radovan Pankov the Vojvodina defender is one of few who remained with his club after the summer transfer window and he remains a key part of the club from Novi Sad.

Next season could be his chance to make a significant move out of the club, as he is expected to develop into a strong defender.

Miloš Veljković finally got some breathing space after leaving Tottenham where he just could not make it to the first team; the versatile defender left White Hart Lane in January and moved to Werder Bremen in Germany.

Time is on his side, as this talented footballer is expected to make huge leaps in the next Bundesliga season. He has amassed only 93 minutes of action so far and he is taking it one step at a time. Keeping in mind that his career stagnated during the last three years with different unsuccessful loan spells at Middlesbrough and Charlton, his current situation can be considered a significant improvement.

Filip Manojlović was Serbia’s third choice goalkeeper. The Red Star player spent the season playing for FK Bežanija, a club competing in Prva Liga Srbije (the second tier of Serbian football) and the keeper is yet to make it to the big stage.

Ivan Šaponjić and his journey from Partizan to Portuguese giants Benfica has already been documented at HERE.

Ivan Šaponjić celebrates a goal during the tournament - Image via abc

Ivan Šaponjić celebrates a goal during the U-20 World Cup  – Image via FIFA

The youngest member of the golden generation was used sparingly in New Zealand, but this did not stop him from scoring an equalizer against Hungary in the dying moments of the match. He scored against Mali as well, and it all got some of the biggest European club’s writing his name down in their scouting books.

Šaponjić made a wise choice in deciding to join Benfica, which in the past has proven to be a good place for talented young players, and we expect to see more from him next season.

U-20 World Cup Winners – Those Who Failed

Srđan Babić was a regular presence in Serbia’s team during the championship, and a first team member of Vojvodina, but his impatience cost him dearly.

Choosing to accept Real Sociedad’s offer was seen as rash move by the Serbian public, as the Spanish club that struggles against relegation were not seen as the perfect place for Babić to make improvements in his young career. To be fair to the player, it was his debut season, but Babić was quickly demoted to the second team where he has so far notched 28 appearances and even scored three goals.

Considering his vast potential and obvious talent, his good tally for Sociedad’s second string team is not enough to fit in the Success category.

Staniša Mandić went on to switch his allegiance in the aftermath of the New Zealand success by chosing to represent Montenegro at the senior level. His decision made quite a stir in the Serbian public; Mandić was quite a disappointment in the eyes of the nation.

The striker was a major force in the Serbian team as his powerful and nothing short of impressive performances brought many suitors with AS Roma believed to have been at the head ofthe line. His big money transfer never came, however, and he stayed in Čukarički where he lost his place in the starting team this season.

Mijat Gaćinović was considered one of the hottest talents of the Serbian generation and one of the most talented players in Europe. He was followed by a host of European clubs even before the World Cup started.

The former Vojvodina playmaker was praised for his technique, agility, and buoyance, and he was linked with a move to the Dutch Eredivisie, but he opted for Bundesliga instead as Groningen were put off by his unresolved ownership situation. Eintracht Frankfurt ultimately bought his contract but Gaćinović went under the radar for most of the season—six appearances for one of the hottest talents of the generation is disappointing.

Miladin Stevanović did not get much playing time in New Zealand, but was always spot on with his performance when called upon. The Partizan youngster sat out the season, watching his club change three managers so far and made four appearances in the Serbian Super Liga.

He also made a Cup appearance against Sparkat recently, but it is fair to say that his path took an unexpected turn following the FIFA World Cup.

Filip Janković, once Red Star’s youngest senior team member tipped to make a world-class career has been making one wrong step after another.

His high financial demands made him an unwanted figure among the Red Star family and a move to Parma upon the expiration of his contract was nothing to boast about. He was immediately loaned out to Catania where he made eight appearances, before finding his place in Domžale (Slovenia) in 2016.

Janković is struggling to prove his talent, and return to the path to success; his career appears doomed to fail at the moment.

Vanja Milinković-Savić was Serbia’s second choice goalkeeper, who ended up going to Manchester United from Vojviodina, but problems with his work permit made it impossible for a deal to go through. He still values the days spent at Old Trafford, and hopes they will be enough of an experience to contribute to his success.

He spent some time in Darmstadt as well, but ended up signing for the Polish club Lechia Gdansk, where he is joined by another Serbia failure Miloš Krasić, once a Juventus player.

Andrija Živković and his curious case was also well documented on the pages of and his story is a classic tale of wrong choices and improper guidance.

Partizan’s talent was sold to an investment fund, his contract was split between Pini Zahavi’s Serbian football agency and Živković’s father which all ended up ruining this boy’s early career.

Andrija Živković has been one the brightest Serbian talent in recent years, but his story has turned into a tragedy - Image via abc

Andrija Živković has been one the brightest Serbian talent in recent years, but his story has turned into a tragedy – Image via FIFA

Arguably the best player of Partizan in the first part of the season, he was banned from the first team because he decided not to extend his deal with the Belgrade club. Many clubs are still waiting for the final outcome and are ready to pounce for the player who could be a first-class star in the future.

For now, it is fair to say that his career has taken a turn for the worse as Andrija Živković hasn’t played a competitive game in months.

U-20 World Cup Winners – Those Who Nailed It

Nemanja Maksimović is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of them all.

Composed and mature despite his young age, this FC Astana attacking midfielder decided the final match against Brazil with his goal, and brought Serbia the trophy making Red Star regret having let him go too easily just a couple of seasons earlier.

In addition to winning the final match for Serbia, he was the man who made the difference against the USA in the quarter-finals as well. He was given a hero’s welcome back in Kazakhstan where he participated in the Champions League with his club—Astana was the first club from Kazakhstan ever to participate in the Champions League.

This boy is making huge strides to prominence and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move to a major European club this summer.

Nemanja Antonov was Serbia’s first choice left back who had an excellent tournament in New Zealand. Some went on to compare him with Manchester City’s star Aleksandar Kolarov. Following the tournament Antonov made a summer move from OFK Belgrade to Grasshopper Club Zürich where he got his chance to shine.

He started fourteen times for the first team this season, and has grown significantly as a player. Furthermore Antonov has shown that he is the kind of player to make smart choices in his career.

Vukašin Jovanović, was the player whose tears won the heart of his nation. His path to prominence has also been documented on Futbolgrad HERE with the former Red Star man making a move to Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Jovanović is currently a member of the reserve team where he played all 720 minutes thus far.

It is expected that Jovanović will be promoted to the first team next season, and many believe this youngster will become even better than Manchester United legend Nemanja Vidić, who also has a past in Russian football.

Stefan Ilić was Serbia’s wild card in the final match against Brazil. This season, the player is one of the key players for Serbia’s outfit Spartak Subotica.

His form has seen a significant improvement towards the end of the season, and Ilić went on to score his first professional hat-trick last week against Metalac Gornji Milanovac.

He played the total of 24 games this season and scored 6 goals. His career has yet to hit the frontline but there is no doubt he can only go upwards from here.

Sergej Milinković-Savić was one of the best performers at the FIFA World Cup and summer brought a big move to Lazio for this young player.

The Italian giants gave him the right opportunity and Milinković-Savić grabbed it with both hands. The total of 23 Serie A performances this season and 17 starts are enough to call his career an early success.

Milinković-Savić managed to score a goal in the Italian championship this season, while he also added two more in the Europa League for Lazio.

Predrag Rajković was the captain of the U-20 team, and he proved to be a real leader. The former Red Star goalkeeper was voted the best keeper in the World Cup, and the summer brought him a big transfer to Maccabi Tel Aviv FC in Israel, which were managed by the Serbian coach Slaviša Jokanović, who was the club’s manager at the time.

He was immediately made a first choice goalkeeper, and he took part in the Champions League where he played against major clubs like Dynamo Kyiv, Porto, and Chelsea.

He is making steady progress, and it is expected that he will make a move to one of Europe’s important clubs sooner or later.

Keeper Rajković was the backbone of Serbia's team - Image via Telegraph

Keeper Rajković was the backbone of Serbia’s team – Image via Telegraph

Marko Grujić definitely made the most of his career in just a year’s time.

He exploded after the U-20 World Cup at Red Star, with impressive performances that attracted interest from Liverpool, who made a January move for the midfielder. The move to Anfield turned into a proper soap opera (you can read about this HERE) when the player returned to Serbia to help his Red Star win the domestic title.

He is due to report for duty in Liverpool this summer and Jürgen Klopp has high expectations for this highly talented midfielder, who is even thought to be a worthy successor of the club’s legendary captain Steven Gerrard.

A holder of Master’s degree in English language and literature, Miloš Marković is an Editor-in-Chief at . Passionate about English language and football, Miloš Marković is also a huge Premier League fan. You can find him on Twitter under @milosemarkovicu.