BELGRADE - Serbia is looking forward to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa mixing hope that it finally has a "real team" with fear of another huge disappointment.
Serbia qualified directly and sure-footed for the tournament. It did the same four years ago, then as Serbia-Montenegro, only to be cast out after the opening stage with three humiliating defeats.
That disaster was further aggravated when Serbia failed to qualify for the Euro finals. It again embarrassed itself, in Olympic Games, provoking an effective boycott of the national team by its fans.
So though Serbia hired a star coach, its own Radomir Antic, in August 2008, just days before World Cup qualifications began, no euphoria followed promises of a "new start".
Antic's debut, a 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands in September two years ago, was seen by a few thousand spectators dotting the 50000- seat Red Star Belgrade stadium.
The same stadium was packed on October 10, in Serbia's homecoming qualifier, in which the capacity crowd saw the team off to Africa following a brilliant 5-0 drubbing of Romania.
In the two years, meanwhile, Antic has turned around and strongly pulled together a team previously plagued by clashing vanities and, reportedly, interests of shadowy managers pulling strings to push their merchandise into the squad in order to raise their price.
Antic has built the team around big stars with immaculate working ethics, as Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Chelsea's Bane Ivanovic in defence, Inter Milan's midfielder Dejan Stankovic and Serbia's top up-and-comer, CSKA Moscow's striker Milos Krasic.
In between, the big names are several others with strong playing time in the Bundesliga, Italy and Spain, like strikers Nikola Zigic and Marko Pantelic.
Radomir Antic, 61, took Serbia over with the reputation of a crisis coach and the only man ever who had led the big Spanish three of Real and Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. Before becoming coach, he played for Partizan Belgrade, Fenerbahce in Turkey, Real Zaragoza and Luton in England.
Following a learning period as assistant coach at Partizan in the mid-1980s, Zaragoza, invited him to return at the bench. Real Madrid called him in 1991 and he later also coached Atletico and Barcelona. Though he previously refused offers to coach Serbia, he changed his mind in August 2008, ending a four-year vacation.
Manchester United's defender and yet often crunch-time goalscorer Nemanja Vidic, 28, now reigns as Serbia's top player. Formerly with Red Star Belgrade, Vidic arrived in Manchester in 2006 after travelling the roundabout route which has become usual for Serbian players over the past two decades, via Russia and Spartak Moscow.
Tall and powerfully built, he will play a crucial role for his country in South Africa where they will face their Group D matches against Ghana, Germany and Australia. - Sapa-DPA