Clemente's greatest challenge
When Serbia kick off their first match as an independent nation against the Czech Republic next month they will be entering a new era in more ways than one. The split from the past will be clear - a new national anthem, a red strip to replace the famous blue of the former Yugoslavia, and, for the first time, a foreign coach at the helm of a side keen to forge a new identity.
'New style'Javier Clemente's appointment is a break from tradition, a clear signal of the newly-formed Football Association of Serbia's desire to open its doors to Europe. And as Serbia welcomes the Spanish coach to Belgrade, Clemente too is looking to break from the past. "Everybody knows Serbians have a talent for football," he told uefa.com. "But sometimes they've had problems building a strong collective. I've come here to see what the main problems are, to crush them and then form a new style. The most important thing is the system and we will build a new one. Everybody will have to give 100 per cent to the collective and forget their wishes and individual ambitions. If they do that everything will come easily."
PuzzleSerbians still have the bitter taste of the FIFA World Cup in their mouths. Ilija Petković's Serbia and Montenegro side underperformed after a superb qualifying campaign had raised expectations, and one of Clemente’s first tasks will be to unravel what happened in Germany. "When you lose your first match in that competition everything becomes very hard," he said. "Before that the same team had played brilliantly. They didn't lose in ten [qualifying] matches and conceded only one goal. Something happened and I shall have to see what."
'Greatest challenge'Clemente is no stranger to international football having coached Spain between 1992 and 1998, but has only briefly worked abroad before, at Olympique de Marseille in 2000. The back-to-back Spanish titles he won in 1983 and 1984 in the first of three spells as coach of Athletic Club Bilbao represent his high point at club level, and he readily admits this will be the "greatest challenge" of his career. "This is a big change, deciding to go back into international football," he said. "I had three other offers, but this was the only one in Europe and I want to stay near my home in Bilbao. I didn't consider the money, I wanted a different challenge. And, believe me, this will be the greatest challenge of my career. I'm working in new conditions and starting from zero. After so many decades in Spain, this is a new step."
Star namesClemente has named Risto Vidaković, who played under him at Real Betis Balompié, as his assistant, to help him get to know players in the Serbian first division. Clemente knows many others including Savo Milosević, Mateja Kežman and Ivica Dragutinovic from Spain. Of those three, Milosević may be the first to get a call from the 56-year-old. "I was Milosević's coach at [RCD] Espanyol three seasons ago," Clemente said. "He decided to leave the national team, but we'll talk. I don't want to make any hasty decisions. I have only one rule. Only the best and most well prepared players must be in the team. Names, ages and anything else is unimportant. I've always believed in young players, I want them in the team. They are fresh blood, and we need it."
'New systems'Clemente is "delighted" by his first impressions of Belgrade. The food, he says, is to his liking - "fish and tomatoes are the same as in Spain, that's enough for a start" - and he is already on the look out for a golf course. Whether he finds time for a round is another matter. The diminutive Clemente, nicknamed Napoleon in the Spanish press - "not because I'm cruel like him, but probably because we're almost the same height" - has a battle on his hands. "We've only got one month before the start of qualifying for [UEFA] EURO 2008™. I need to watch so many players, check ideas and look at new systems, and I only have one chance against the Czech Republic. Two days, two training sessions, one match - that's not enough. The first month will be the hardest."
Long-term goalGroup 1 rivals Portugal, Belgium, Poland and Finland will all provide a stern test in the race for a place in Austria and Switzerland, but Clemente is confident. "It will be a strong competition, but I'm optimistic," he said. "We showed so many good qualities [in qualifying for the World Cup] and I think we can do that again. Otherwise I wouldn't have taken this job. EURO 2008™ is very important for us, but we must also prepare a good base for the future. Working for the long term is best."