On Tuesday, England play what may prove to be the toughest of their remaining World Cup qualifiers. Ranked 28th in the world, despite having started from scratch following a split with Serbia in 2006, Montenegro took two more points from their first four qualifiers than England did, and – at least before last week’s games – top Group H.
Yet Montenegro’s population is less than 650,000, around a ninetieth of that of England, and less than half of that of Trinidad and Tobago, which is the smallest country ever to have played at a World Cup. Montenegro is the minnow to end all minnows. To put that in context, Montenegro’s population is roughly the same as Sheffield.
What’s even more striking is that this is clearly an exceptionally talented generation of players. There is the versatile and intelligent Mirko Vucinic of Juventus, blessed with a ferocious shot, who recorded Montenegro’s first international goal and celebrated scoring the winner against Switzerland in a Euro 2012 qualifier by taking his shorts off, putting them on his head and charging about in his underwear. There is deep-lying Stevan Jovetic, with his mass of Brian May curls, his energy and invention a key to Fiorentina’s style. In Florence he was joined last summer by the 22-year-old Stefan Savic, who after failing to impose himself at Manchester City, is beginning to fulfil his promise as a classy, ball-playing centre-back – not the most physically dominant player perhaps but a cultured reader of the game.
But this group of players isn’t freakish – Montenegro has been producing great footballers for decades. Among the first wave of Yugoslav footballers to move to England in the late 1970s was defender Niko Jovanovic, who played briefly for Manchester United, and midfielder Ante Mirocevic, who was Sheffield Wednesday’s record signing when they picked him up from FK Buducnost in 1980. He still speaks fondly of South Yorkshire and of going fishing with Wednesday’s manager, Jack Charlton. “I loved the pubs,” he said. “Lager-and-lime with a whisky chaser. I’d drink ten, 20 a night, and then we’d train the next day. That’s what England taught me, how to drink and play.”
When, in 1998, Real Madrid ended their 32-year drought and won the European Cup, it was a Montenegrin, Predrag Mijatovic, who scored the winner in the final against Juventus. There were three Montenegrins in the Crvena Zvezda Belgrade side that lifted the Cup in 1991: the uncompromising left-back Slobodan Marovic, the classy rightback Dusko Radinovic and, perhaps most famous of them all, linking midfield and attack, the brilliant dribbler Dejan Savicevic, who is now President of the Montenegrin Football Association.
Montenegro are heroic overachievers. Ask any player or official why this should be, and the response tends to be a baffled shrug. Montenegro has always produced good footballers, they’ll say, while some may make reference to the warrior past of a tough mountain people. Whatever the reason, a fine side buoyed by a proud tradition awaits England on Tuesday.
Montenegro by numbers
2006: Fifa’s newest member, Montenegro only joined after independence from Serbia.
28: Its rapid rise to 28th in the Fifa world rankings put it above Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
632,261: It has achieved this success despite only having a population the size of Sheffield.
13,812sq km: The country which lies on the Adriatic Sea is smaller than Wales.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football