Best Serbian Football Players: National Team Worse Than the Sum of Its Parts

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 25.4.2024.

All football fans cross the path from desperation to dreamy brashness as fast as you can say "comeback" - yet arguably none reach the sky heights or descend to pittish deeps as much as the Serbs when supporting their Eagles. The best Serbian football players know that better than anybody.

For the World Cup in Qatar 2022, the country's hype reached England in 2000s levels of hype before the Golden Generation's unfulfilling tournaments. At least seven songs in different genres were made for every Serbian to hum during work hours. But just 18 months later, there is seemingly no fervour for the Euros? Where they will face the best English, Danish, and Slovenian players in the group.

With the same coach, who holds a legend status in the country, with few, if any deemed higher for their player years. The majority of the team is still the same. Besides the transfer boom to Saudi Arabia which lured some of its key players, the reasons for demoralization are many.

Here, we are focusing on what makes the disappointing tournaments sting all that much more - the individual quality of the Serbian football players.

#10 Strahinja Pavlovic (Red Bull Salzburg)

FC RB Salzburg gegen Olympiakos Piräus (Testspiel, 2022-07-02) 39.jpg
By Werner100359 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Certainly the player on this list of top Serbian players who will advance his position the most in the future. Despite being 22, Pavlovic already represented five clubs, including two loans from Monaco - like Basel and Cercle Brugge. But the tall Serbian has now settled at Red Bull Salzburg and is bound to improve on his one title in Austria and one Serbian Cup with Partizan trophy collection.

Pavlovic makes the cut mostly due to his amazing ball-control ability for a powerful CB, as well the attitude a high-class player needs. This is why, at 22, he has 33 caps for Serbia, quite close to much more experienced players on this list.

#9 Luka Jovic (Milan) - CF, 26

Luka Jovic

Perhaps forever marked by the common "Real Madrid flop" tag, yet there is no doubt that Luka Jovic deserves a spot on this list. Still only 26, Jovic is about to enter his prime as he has a solid record behind him - not for Santiago Bernabeu, but certainly for this list of 10 best Serbian players now. Especially as his form is improving with nine goals scored in 28 matches for AC Milan this season.

Jovic is accredited with one Champions League, two La Liga, and two Spanish Supercups that he had little to do with. The same goes for two Portuguese titles with Benfica. Yet the German Cup won with his breakout club Eintracht Frankfurt is fully earned, as is the Serbian league with Red Star. Luka scored a total of 82 club goals and made 25 assists in 292 games representing the aforementioned and Viola as well.

#8 Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina) - CB, 26

Nikola Milenkovic

One of several notable Serbian players who went the route from Partizan Belgrade to Fiorentina. The only difference, despite the heavy speculation, 257 games after, Milenkovic still hasn't left Florence. In total, with his 44 Partizan appearances, the tall centre-back has 301 club games behind him. That's how many rumours about transfers to Milan and Inter have also been written without consequences.

Perhaps the reasoning is Milenkovic's track record in big matches, for Viola and Serbia - for which he played 51 games at the age of 26. Somewhat due to his nervousness in derbies, the CB has only one league and two cups in Serbia to show for his silverware collection.

#7 Nemanja Gudelj (Sevilla) - DM, 31

Nemanja Gudelj (2016).jpg
By Richard Mulder - (cropped), CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Certainly not the most popular of the Serbian players amongst the domestic fans, yet Nemanja Gudelj’s career achievements can’t be overlooked. Gudelj is one of the few active Serbian players who has a continental trophy - two Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, in 2020 and 2023. With Sporting, he won the Cup and the League Cup. Gudelj also had a triumphant return to Europe after playing in China, where he won the Supercup.

Starting his career as a defensive midfielder, Gudelj recently moved back to the centre-back position for his club. Playing 192 games for Sevilla in total, 59 for Ajax, and 43 for Sporting he has played for notable teams across Europe. The 32-year-old also represented AZ Alkmaar, NAC Breda, Tianjin Jinmen Tiger, and Guangzhou. In total 506 games, scoring 46 times and making 36 assists. Despite being criticized every game, Gudelj collected 60 caps for Serbia.

#6 Filip Kostic (Juventus) - LWB, 31

Filip Kostic

Having a silent 2023/2024 season, yet Filip Kostic has been a force at the left wing-back position for several seasons now. The 31-year-old has collected 117 assists in his club career, with 70 goals, in 515 matches. Kostic made his name at Eintracht Frankfurt where he truly excelled with 33 goals and 64 assists in 172 matches! At Juventus, he hasn't found his grove quite yet, but considering he played all games under Max Allegri, it's not surprising that the numbers aren't high.

Representing Radnicki 1923 Kragujevc in his home country, then shipping to Eredivisie and Groningen, Kostic represented two other clubs in Germany - HSV and Stuttgart. For Serbia, he has played 62 games, scoring three times and making 11 assists. Another proof that the left-footed crossing machine had a later kickstart to his career.

#5 Nemanja Matic (Lyon) - DM, 35

Nemanja Matic

Even though he has nearly 400 games for Manchester United, Chelsea, and Roma, the 35-year-old Nemanja Matic has played only 48 games for Serbia! As will be the case with many stories of Serbian players, the reason is mostly due to some agent's players having priority due to corruption. Actually, the little games one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation played stopped way back in 2019.

Despite this situation, Matic did win the award for the Best Serbian Player of the Year twice, in 2014 and 2015. Matic, a consummate professional with little desire for a flashy footballer lifestyle, took the odd route in football, moving to Slovakia at the start of his career. Getting picked up by Chelsea, released on loan to Vitesse and then sold to Benfica before the Blues realized their mistake.

With CFC, Matic won three Premier League titles, although with the first one in 2010, he had little to do with. The same goes for the FA Cup triumph in the same year. Yet the 2015 League Cup featured the tall Serbian prominently. With Benfica, the long-legged midfielder picked up a title, one cup, and two Portuguese League Cups. Aged 35, he is now playing in France revitalizing Lyon after a brief stint with Rennais. All in all, Matic bagged 609 club games, scoring 27 times and making 41 assists.

#4 Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Al-Hilal) - CM, 29

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

Even though we counted him as one of the three best Serbian players when discussing the Saudi transfer boom, the popular SMS earned that honour mostly due to his skill set. In that regard, he IS the best Serbian player. Yet on the matter of motivation to show it, and hence a lack of trophies, others must be placed ahead of him as the best Serbian football players in 2024.

Lazio's president Claudio Lotito boasted about a €100,000,000 transfer price for Sergej - and considering for whom Premier League clubs spent identical sums, he wasn't wrong. As Milinkovic-Savic played 341 games for Lazio in midfield, scoring 69 goals and making 59 assists. Making the Olimpico fuller with the magic and lucidity of his touch.

But the former Genk and Vojvodina player seemingly doesn't have the desire to prove himself at the highest level. Leaving for Saudi Arabia in his prime for only €20,000,000. Earning his money with 11 goals and 15 assists in 37 games for Al-Hilal, lifting the country's Supercup. Sergej did end up lifting silverware in Rome, the Italian Cup once and the Supercup twice. Prior to that, he won the Serbian Cup with Vojvodina and had two notable wins in youth football: the European Under-19 Championship in 2013 and the Under 20 World Cup title in 2015.

For his national team, Sergej played only 49 games. Some games he missed because of the agent battles gripping the Serbian national team. But when he did get the opportunity, Sergej impressed only on two major occasions out of the 49 games he played. In total having 16 goal involvements for the Eagles (8G/8A).

#3 Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus) - CF, 24

Dusan Vlahovic

The most expensive Serbian player of all time, by quite a margin following his 2022 winter move from Fiorentina to Juventus for €83,500,000. Threading a beaten path of players starting in Partizan Belgrade's famed academy, before reaching Artemio Franchi and then going onwards.

Vlahovic was stellar with Viola, scoring 49 times and contributing eight assists in his 108 games. His numbers are similar with Juventus - 40 goals and nine assists in 95 matches. However, the 16 Serie A goals in 28 matches (so far) of the 2023/2024 season under Max Allegri with this group of Juve teammates might be one of the biggest individual accomplishments of the campaign.

The emotional Vlahovic needs to work on his mentality, as he gets frustrated easily, yet his physical gifts and technical ability are unmatched in Europe. As the classic number 9 has the free-kick ability of 10s of old - scoring five in his Italian league saga. For Serbia, only slowly becoming the starter, Vlahovic bagged 13 goals and made six assists in 25 games. In the near future, the number one spot for the best Serbian player is his to lose.

#2 Dusan Tadic (Fenerbahce) - AM, 35

Dusan Tadic

The number one and two spots are reserved for two players who have kept the Serbian national team afloat for years. Also, the only two players who have won the award for the Best Serbian Player in a Year three times! Dusan Tadic took the honour in 2016, 2019, and 2021 - once while he was at Southampton, and twice at Ajax.

Only when he joined the Dutch giants did the rest of Europe start realising what the Serbian fans knew all along - Tadic is a maestro of the game. It was a long road, stemming from Vojvodina, going to the Eredivisie and first Groningen, then Twente, before he took a ferry across the channel to Southampton.

Tadic's output has been solid at the English club, 24 goals and 33 assists in 162 games - would've been better if his striker Graziano Pelle spent more time training, and less partying, according to sources close to Tadic. But at Ajax, he truly shined, scoring 105 goals and making 112 assists in 241 games! Being the league's top goalscorer once, and the top assist-maker in seven Eredivisie seasons! Once in the CL as well. Tadic won three titles with Ajax, two Cups, and one Supercup before moving on to Fenerbahce.

The professionality of the Serbian resulted in 712 total club career games, 217 goals and 243 assists. For the national team, the numbers count to 22 goals and 40 assists in 106 games - more than any of his compatriots! And counting.

#1 Aleksandar Mitrovic (Al-Hilal) - CF, 29

Aleksandar Mitrovic

By far the most beloved of all the Serbian players amongst its fanbase. The target man made the list of 10 players whose record is better for the national team than for clubs after all. It's not that Mitar - as he is affectionately called in Serbia - has a bad club record, it's that his record-setting 57 goals in 89 matches for his country could shame many higher-profile strikers. International football was the main reason for Mitrogol winning the Serbian Player of the Year award in 2018, 2022, and 2023.

His club record is better than it might seem, with 229 goals in 467 total matches, alongside 55 assists. Although, it has to be said Mitrovic was outstanding in the Championship for Fulham and Newcastle - scoring 85 goals and making 16 assists in 126 matches. His PL record for those two clubs is still respectable at 38 goals and 11 assists in 129 matches. At Anderlecht, the powerful striker played 90 matches, scoring 44 goals and making 11 assists. Now, at Al-Hilal, he has 41 goal involvements (33G/8A) in 35 matches.

Mitar won the Serbian league with Partizan, Belgian with Anderlecht, and the Saudi Supercup, alongside the European U19 championship with Serbia in 2013. He will remain the best Serbian football player amongst the people for a while.


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