Luka Milivojevic has been starring at the World Cup for Serbia this month, however, his seven-year association with the national team has been filled with ups and downs as he strove to become a regular for his country.
Incredibly, eight different managers have managed Serbia since the Palace midfielder was called up for the first time in 2011, but the majority have kept faith in Milivojevic to allow him to become a key man on the world stage. Here is the story of how he did it.
Having previously won four caps at under-21 level, a 20-year-old Milivojevic was fast-tracked into the full Serbia squad by Vladimir Petrovic in September 2011 for a pair of Euro 2012 qualifiers against Italy and Slovenia. Then playing for Belgrade-based side FK Rad, Milivojevic was named on the bench against the latter but he would have to wait over a year for his first cap.
It finally arrived in November 2012 when Milivojevic – now playing for Red Star Belgrade and having been named in the Serbia Superliga Team of the Season for 2011/12 – was selected by Yugoslavia legend Sinisa Mihajlovic for a friendly against Chile, and Milivojevic played 85 minutes of the 3-1 success in Santiago.
He obviously impressed as Mihajlovic used him in four of the next six 2014 World Cup qualifiers, missing two games against arch-rivals Croatia, but his departure to manage Sampdoria would leave Milivojevic in the international wilderness for 18 months.
Following Mihajlovic’s departure, Ljubinko Drulovic was placed in caretaker charge of Serbia before Dick Advocaat took the reins, however the Dutchman left after a poor start to Euro 2016 qualification and Radovan Curcic became Serbia’s third manager of 2014.
In the summer of 2013, Milivojevic had swapped the Serbian SuperLiga for Belgium and signed for Anderlecht, but despite a promising start, he struggled to command a first-team place at club level and that would see him handed no opportunities to make an impression on the international stage during this period.
A switch to Olympiakos put him back in the reckoning, and he was finally called up to one of Curcic’s squads in March 2015 for a Euro 2016 qualifier against Portugal. Despite not coming off the bench, he belatedly won his seventh cap in a friendly against Azerbaijan three months later.
Becoming a regular
That display ensured that Milivojevic remained in Serbia’s next two squads but he failed to come off the bench, however in October 2015 he seized his opportunity during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Albania. Keen to impress (he was booked after three minutes), Milivojevic helped his side to a 2-0 win and began a run of 12-straight appearances for his country despite another change in manager – all but one coming as a starter.
That run included the first four qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup, which saw Luka play every minute of Serbia’s draws against the Republic of Ireland and Wales and victories against Moldova and Austria to help stir dreams of Serbia qualifying for a first major tournament in eight years.
World Cup clincher
By the time Milivojevic won his next – and 19th – cap, he was a Palace player after the Eagles snapped him up from Olympiakos where he had won two league titles. His next two caps would see enough points claimed to put Serbia at the top of the group, where they would remain for the rest of the qualifying campaign.
In the end, Milivojevic would miss just one of Serbia’s 10 qualifiers due to a suspension for picking up two bookings, and scored his first international goal against Austria in a 3-2 defeat in October 2017 – a low 25-yarder that arrowed into the bottom corner.
He came off the bench for the final 13 minutes in the game that secured Serbia’s spot in Russia as they beat Georgia 1-0, but more managerial upheaval would see Slavoljub Muslin replaced with Mladen Krstajic following qualification.
Making an impact in Russia
Building up to the World Cup, Serbia played Morocco and Nigeria in March with Milivojevic winning caps in both, including the full 90 against the latter at Barnet’s Hive Stadium.
After his place on the plane for Russia was confirmed, Milivojevic has featured for two 45 minute stints as he gears up for the tournament, seeing his side lose 1-0 to Chile before winning his 29th cap in a 5-1 thrashing of Bolivia a week ahead of the tournament.
He was handed his World Cup debut against Costa Rica which saw the Serbs begin with a win, and played 81 minutes of their last-gasp defeat to Switzerland, leaving them on the brink of the knockouts - although Brazil lie in their way.