Serbia won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand on Saturday, defeating Brazil 2-1 via a dramatic extra-time winner (HIGHLIGHTS) in the tournament final at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland.
Some US national team fans go acquainted with Serbia thanks to their nail-biting, penalty-kick shootout win over the USA in the quarterfinal stage – and Saturday's 118th-minute winner came from none other than Nemanja Maksimovic, who netted the game-clinching spot kick vs. the US.
But many may not have realized that the nation's U-20s are led by a former MLSer: Veljko Paunovic.
A striker and attacking midfielder during his own playing days, Paunovic starred at Atletico Madrid and a host of other big European clubs before capping his sterling career with one season at the Philadelphia Union in 2011.
Despite having been out of the game for nearly three years, he scored three goals and three assists in 17 appearances for the Union. Dubbing himself a “Serb of Ben,” he quickly became a fan favorite as Philly qualified for the playoffs in that campaign.
Now Paunovic is a rising star in the coaching world, and has become a hero in his homeland after steering the Serbia U-20s – nicknamed “the Eaglets” – to a world championship. The squad allowed just four goals in seven matches in New Zealand (four of them involving extra time), and talents like Maksimovic, Andrija Zivkovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic are now attracting attention across Europe and beyond.
“Were we lucky? Yes, we were lucky. But you have to deserve your luck and we worked extremely hard,” Paunovic said after the upset of Brazil, dedicating the win to his recently-departed father. “We are a team that plays as one and, in the end, I think the team that wanted most to win this trophy has won it. It will give us confidence for the future but we must continue building, and rebuilding, our football and our society.
“We can't stop now. We have to keep working and aim to replicate this on the biggest stage.”
Paunovic and his side have brought new and much-needed optimism to Serbian soccer in the wake of the senior national team's inability to qualify for their last two major tournaments, Euro 2012 and last summer's World Cup. For those interested in learning more, ESPNFC featured a fascinating profile of Paunovic – who uses social media to keep his players connected and tweets himself from @VPaunovic – on Sunday morning.