Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is one of the brightest talents of our age. The midfielder has always stood out from the rest.
As the rain pattered down in Oslo, the time for Serbia and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was beginning to ebb away. In the relentless heavy deluge, legs began to tire. Heads started to drop.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s was beginning to twitch. He wanted to be out there.
He’d warmed the bench for 80 minutes. His nostrils were flaring. His boots were itching to touch the turf.
The fated call finally came.
In the moments he stepped on the turf. Sergej remembered the texts he shared with his brother, Vanja, the night before.
‘Give me two goals,’ his brother had asked.
‘I will,’ Sergej replied.
Perhaps, some portentous celestial forces were at play. But Sergej duly delivered on his promise.
The first was a six yard volley after just a few seconds on the pitch. The second a sumptuous chip.
With his arms stretched taut, Milinkovic-Savic grinned towards the cameras in the aftermath. The Serbian giant had defeated Norway’s Vikings on the soil of their ancestors.
At last Sergej heralded his arrival on the international stage. A moment which had been ordained from the the day he was born.
Born in Spain to a footballer nomad in Nikola Milinkovic and a basketball veteran in Milana Savic, Sergej grew up on the road as his father moved from Spain to Portugal and then later Austria.
The constant travel granted Sergej the opportunity to experience a plethora of varying football cultures. He’d watch his father play in grounds across Europe.
Sergej let it seep in like a sponge.
When the family returned to Novi-Sad in Serbia, the sport crazed parents were more than happy to let Sergej join local club Vojvodina.
It is here where Vojvodina youth coach, Milan Kosanovic first saw Sergej play.
‘I first saw him play when he was 12 or 13, the first thing which stood out to me was his technique,’ the former Vojvodina youth coach Milan Kosanovic recalls exclusively to First Time Finish. ‘He looked like a good player.’
Many regard Sergej Milinkovic-Savic as the ‘complete midfielder.’ Adept at breaking-up opposition attacks and surging forward, the Serbian has been the beating heart of Lazio’s team for the past few seasons.
Sergej has the ability to make things look easy and simple on the pitch. His elegance is extraordinary.
While Milan Kosanovic recalls all of that being present in Sergej’s youth, there were also some doubts.
‘I was a little split,’ Milan remembers. ‘In his first years at the academy, he was a player who knew everything with the ball in terms of technique, but he was a little slower and a little relaxed and lazy.’
Ironically despite both his parents being athletes, Sergej had a passionate dislike for running.
‘He didn’t like running. He even hid behind a tree on the running tracks to try to steal a lap,’ Milan describes.
Despite his mischief, when it came to playing football, Sergej’s brilliance and passion was undeniable. Milan remembers it well.
‘He loved to play with the ball in practise matches, drills and shooting.’
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Despite Sergej’s nonchalance, Milan Kosanovic spotted a raw diamond in the midfielder. His attitude stood out to the Vojvodina coach.
‘He was a strong person as a child – he had a winning mentality. Sergej liked to win, but always in an attractive way, with some attractive goals. He quickly recovered from his mistakes too.’
That’s an admirable trait and one every coach loves.
Milan took Sergej under his wing in Vojvodina’s academy and helped him to hone his talent.
‘We worked mostly on correcting things related to the fact that not every solution had to be extraordinary. That there were simple passes to play in football too and on the elements of improving physical endurance in order for his football knowledge to be fully expressed.’
With Milan’s guidance, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic made a rapid rise through Vojvodina’s academy system.
He was sometimes deployed as a striker, which certainly helped the Serbian develop his lethal finishing ability.
‘Sergej sometimes played the position of central striker because of his stature, excellent technique back to goal and the intuition he had to find the back of the net. In the young selections of Vojvodina, he played it as a secondary position.’
An extraordinary talent
Sergej’s self-confidence stems from his family background. It was instilled in him by two extreme professionals in his mother and father.
‘The family had a great influence on his love of sports,’ Milan believes.
The experience of Sergej’s mother and father in their respective fields as athletes helped their son to grow even in moments of strife.
‘His parents supported him during his times of developmental crises. Problems that all young athletes face in sport. They went through all that as top professionals and so they could
explain using their personal anecdotes that not everything is easy when you grow up in sports.’
It kept Sergej focused. His parents instilled in him an incessant confidence which gave him a professional mindset way before his peers. It’s why Sergej makes such confident remarks. It’s why he confidently predicts scoring twice on the eve of one of Serbia’s biggest football games.
‘Throughout the entire period of football development, he was calm and peaceful and full of self-confidence. He was sure in his knowledge that he could get out of problems. He had the ability to solve especially complex situations faster.’
Heading for the top
In 2013, Milan wanted to test Sergej to his limits. He took him to the Institute of Sports in Serbia to assess the young midfielder’s spatial awareness.
‘He had the best results out of every athlete who played a ball sport. It meant that he saw things half a second before everyone else, which you can see on the pitch when he plays now. That was the moment when I knew that great things were going to happen in his career.’
Milan would be proven right, shortly after Sergej Milinkovic-Savic completed the tests he would fight himself into Vojvodina’s first team and win the European Championships with Serbia at U19 level.
Soon Genk came calling, and their offer was one the young Serbian couldn’t refuse.
‘Sergej wanted to play at a higher level,’ Milan remembers. ‘He saw Genk and Belgium as the perfect opportunity to improve his football skills.’
At Genk, Sergej grew from strength to strength.
The 2015 World Cup, where Milinkovic-Savic played a pivotal role in helping Serbia win the tournament, earned him a move to Lazio and he hasn’t looked back since.
Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid are purportedly keeping an eye on the midfielder and Milan Kosanovic is sure his former protegee can become ‘one of the best midfielders in Europe.’
Becoming an icon
The next step for now however is leading his country to their first ever appearance in the European Championships as an independent nation next summer.
Milinkovic-Savic’s dismantling of Norway was his first stand-out moment in the national team. He went 15 games without scoring in Serbia’s senior side but now has 3 goals in his last 3 games.
Milan Kosanovic believes Sergej’s moment is now.
‘I think that he can be an important player in the Serbian national team and continue his success at youth level where he was both European and World Champion and a bronze medallist at the World Cup in New Zealand.’
Scotland will provide a tough test, but the Serbians have enough quality to see them through.
Winning the Play Offs would take Milinkovic-Savic into a tough Group D, against Croatia, England and the Czech Republic.
It will be an opportunity Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will relish and if he manages to stand out, a big European move will surely beckon.
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