How a Former MLS Player and A Group of Teens Are Trying to Heal Serbia's War Wounds

Former Philadelphia Union forward Veljko Paunovic coaches the Serbian U-20 team, who will face Brazil on Saturday morning in the FIFA U-20 World Cup Final. The group of teenagers have captivated citizens of the formerly war torn country.

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Jun 19 2015, 2:38pm

Screenshot via FIFA TV

On May 13 1990, Zagreb's Stadion Maksimir burned.

In an incident since described as one of the worst cases of hooliganism in European football history, members of Red Star Belgrade and Dynamo Zagreb's 'ultras' fought in a brutal riot—while their teams watched it unfold from the pitch.

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More than sixty people were injured, and the stadium was set alight. The game was called off before half-time.

The former Yugoslavian football league collapsed not long after the cancelled game. The entire nation would follow just over a year later.

The Zagreb riot was the lowest point in the former Yugoslavia's football history—and a precursor to the extreme ethnic violence that gripped the Balkans for the following decade.

Serbia—one of the states that made up the former Yugoslavia—has only existed independently since 2006, but still sits under the shadow cast by the wars resulting from the break-up of the former communist nation.

The deeds of men like former Serbian president and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb general who ordered the infamous Srebrenica massacre in 1995, will never be forgotten.

Pedrag Rajkovic wasn't born until five years after the riot in Zagreb, while names like Miloslevic and Mladic are simply echoes of another, more painful, time.

Now the 19-year-old goalkeeper and a group of young Serbian footballers in New Zealand are trying to heal those scars.

In the early hours of tomorrow morning (1 a.m. ET), Rajkovic will captain Serbia in the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, against Brazil.

Serbia's Stadion Maksimir once burned down in more turbulent times. It has since been rebuilt. Photo via Wiki Commons

Serbia's journey through the World Cup has captured the imagination of the sporting public back home.

The team finished top of their group, but had to endure three extra-time knock-out victories against Hungary, the United States and Mali, respectively, to make it through to the final.

"It means a lot to us. We promise tomorrow we will give our best for the game," Rajkovic, a first-team regular for Red Star Belgrade, says.

"We hope that tomorrow they will wake up at seven o'clock in the morning [when it is televised in Serbia], and they will support us."

Rajkovic's words ooze eagerness, and innocence. He is a young man that just wants to get out onto the pitch, and play.

Ask his coach Veljko Paunovic about what tomorrow's game means, and you'll get a much firmer, more assertive, answer.

Paunovic remembers well the dark days his nation endured in the 1990s. Born in Macedonia, but raised in Belgrade, Paunovic left his unstable homeland in 1995 for a club career that stretched from Spain, Germany, Russia, and the United States, where he retired in 2012.

The former Philadelphia Union striker sees his side's achievement in New Zealand as part of Serbia's "rebirth"; not just as a footballing nation—but also for a country as a whole.

"After what we have lived through over the last twenty years, this is a rebirth of Serbian football—and of the Serbian nation," Paunovic told VICE Sport.

"We feel like what have done a lot for the country [at the U-20 World Cup], and we see now is the people of Serbia have finally got united around the football. Football is a great platform to send a message, and the message we send to out country and to the world is about unity. It is about team – together we can do great things.

"This is what we need for our country," Paunovic added. "Still tomorrow we have to prove—no matter what the result will be—that we can play as a team, and spread the same values."

While Serbia reached the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the achievements of the U-20 side in New Zealand are indicative of a true youth revolution in the nation's footballing ranks, and perhaps signal a bright future for the senior team.

Under Paunovic, and using a UEFA-funded national training center that opened in 2009, Serbia won the 2013 U-19 European Championship in Lithuania, and reached the semi-finals of last year's tournament in Hungary.

Former Philadelphia Union player Veljko Paunovic coaches the Serbian U-20 team. Photo by Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Though the senior men's side is currently struggling in European Championship qualifying, there is a strong core of talented young Serbians at top European clubs within the squad.

Liverpool's Lazar Markovic, Benfica's Filip Duricic and Roma's Adem Ljajic are all aged under 23, complimenting the team's Old Guard of Chelsea's Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic, and Manchester City's Aleksandar Kolarov.

Add Paunovic's rising stars into the mix over the next few years, you've got the potential makings of a Serbian 'golden generation'.

"We have had good players and generations, but we have had bad circumstances. Now circumstances have changed for good," the 37-year-old coach says.

"What I think is we really have great potential from [players born between] 1991 and 2000, the generation we are managing now and working with.

"We have a good ten years generation, which is good for the future of the 'A' team. In the future, I believe the 'A' team will, one day, win something very important in Europe."

Along with the likes of Serbian tennis superstars Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic, members of the current 'A' team have sent messages of support to the team in New Zealand—with Matic calling on the youngsters to play with a "cold head and a warm heart" ahead of their quarter-final victory over the United States.

Despite the fact that their Yugoslavian footballing fathers beat Brazil 2-1 in the 1987 U-20 World Cup in Chile, Serbia are massive underdogs in tomorrow's final.

After edging past Uruguay and Portugal on penalties in their first two knockout games, Brazil trashed Senegal 5-0 in their semi-final in Christchurch—arguably the most dominant team display of the tournament.

A Selecao Sub-20's defense has been their key, with more than 500 minutes of football now past since they last conceded a goal.

The task is a great one. But so is that of rebuilding a national psyche shaped and shaken by war and violence.

Paunovic believes the actions of a group of young Serbian men on football fields in New Zealand over the last month has begun to light the way for those back home.

"Football always manifests the social health of a country," Paunovic says. "These guys [the Serbian Under-20 team] are really healthy in all terms. I think we can light up the fire – but we have to continue. Right now, tomorrow and after that."