Milan Ristic knew what to do when it looked like Dusan Vlahovic might slip through the cracks. The forward was 14 years old but his talents were legendary in Serbia’s youth football scene and increasingly far beyond. Partizan Belgrade had tried to sign him after graduating from Altina Zemun, a local academy, but failed to reach an agreement with the player’s family.
Next, Vlahovic had been taken to the nearby OFK, where a brief period ended in disagreement. Shortly thereafter, Ristic, a youth coach at Partizan, heard that Vlahovic had been spotted kicking a ball alone at his local stadium. The boy had to play, not to waste his talent, while adults fought over him. Ristic jumped into the car right next to his colleague, influential talent developer Dusan Trbojevic, and drove fast.
“I’ve seen and worked with a lot of players,” says Ristic. “But he was the only one I could tell from a first glance was ultra-talented. Some children are bigger, faster, stronger, but only with Duci I can say straight away that he would be a great player.”
Therefore, the boy needed a good home. The high-speed ride wasn’t in vain: this time everyone shook hands and Vlahovic’s burgeoning career was back on track.
Since then things have ignited and the thrill for Serbia, who start their World Cup against Brazil on Thursday, is that they have a real top striker in their ranks. Vlahovic was the hottest name in Europe last winter, joining Juventus from Fiorentina in January and his form has held up even during a period of relative instability for FC Bianconeri.
A born goalscorer, he’s also a versatile leader of the line. It’s hard to believe he’s 22, but it’s not far-fetched to think that should he stay fit and healthy over the next few weeks, his team will have a fighting chance to break new ground. “I can’t remember the last time our team looked so good and confident,” said Sava Petrov, who played alongside Vlahovic in the acclaimed Partizan youth team.
Petrov, who is two years older than Vlahovic and plays for Radnicki Nis, recalls when excited whispers turned into loud, confident proclamations. It was after Vlahovic, who played for Ristic’s U15 side Partizan, scored four goals against bitter rivals Crvena Zvezda – Red Star – despite missing a penalty. “That’s when people started pronouncing his name widely,” he says. “Everyone could see that there was something that made them different from others of their generation.”
At Altina, who work with boys between the ages of seven and 14 and whose youth teams are constantly overwhelmed, this has been clear for a long time. Vlahovic tended to play an age group up but that didn’t stop him from leading the fight. Dragan Perisic, his coach there, remembers a game at Crvena Zvezda when his team talks were practically done for him. “Before the game, he gathered our players and told them: ‘Let’s win, don’t be afraid, we’re a good team and we can beat them.'”
Altina’s underdogs beat the country’s biggest name 1-0. “He loves the games against strong opponents, he enjoys it when it’s tense,” says Perisic. “If you’re a good guy and a good player, the others on the team will respect you a lot. “He had that and knew how to use it to make our team better. He never looked for excuses when things weren’t going well. He’s not a swindler.
“There was never a single argument with a teammate: even if he didn’t score, he didn’t get nervous or yell at others. And if he saw a teammate struggling to score, he would pass the ball to him and try to motivate him to overcome the problem. I liked that very much.”
Ristic calls Vlahovic “the greatest professional I’ve ever seen…his work ethic surpasses his talent.” He describes Vlahovic, who once played for Crvena Zvezda before joining Partizan but failed to impress that day, as a typical Zemunac from the north-western suburbs of Belgrade. “They say that guys from Zemun are tough for a reason,” he says. “When people from there set out to do something, they don’t give up until they achieve it, be it in sport or in life.”
Shortly before Vlahovic joined Partizan, Perisic traveled to Italy on a reconnaissance mission to Turin. He was surprised when he asked questions about his charge: the club’s scouts, aware like everyone else that Serbia’s wealth of young talent is astounding for its size, had been eyeing him in his early youth. They had the right idea, but eight years later, Vlahovic sidestepped them by moving to their city’s giants.
Europe’s biggest clubs watched as Vlahovic became Partizan’s youngest-ever professional and was handed the number 9 shirt a month after turning 16. He had scored his first goal for the seniors in a matter of weeks but only managed three before Fiorentina struck. The months between his signing of a preliminary contract, formalized in June 2017 before he turned 18 the following February, and his arrival in Tuscany were marred by injuries and an understandable uneasiness.
Even more frustrating, he wasn’t able to sign up for deployment until July 2018. “It was a difficult time for him, his head was in Italy and his body in Belgrade,” says Petrov, with whom Vlahovic had meanwhile played for Serbia U19. Ristic says: “He didn’t take that well. Basically he lost a whole year and he’s the type of player who always wants to play.”
The lost time has long since been made up for. Vlahovic has scored 44 times in the Italian top flight for La Viola, was named Best Young Player of 2020-21 and has held his own above the stormy waters of Juve in every other game by scoring more than a goal. He admires Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic: no one could tell he is yet, but there are elements of both in his 6ft 3in frame, touch, power and the variation in his finish.
At Altina, Perisic was keen to entrust Vlahovic with the number 10 shirt. It was intended as a reward for his achievements and his supernatural leadership qualities: the coach considered it the most significant thing in football. He forwarded the offer to his player but received a call from club president Nebojsa Pejovic later in the evening. Vlahovic had asked if he could keep the number 9 shirt he had previously worn. “He didn’t want to confront my authority,” says Perisic. “He always felt the number 9 was his. And that describes him very well: as a goalscorer.”
He will have to settle for the No. 18 shirt when Serbia take on Brazil; Another Partizan product in exceptional shape and six years his senior, Aleksandar Mitrovic shows no signs of giving up his favorite number. The fact that national team coach Dragan Stojkovic has two forwards of this caliber is an exceptionally good sign, although both have struggled in the run-up to this tournament. Luka Jovic, essentially Vlahovic’s replacement at Fiorentina, isn’t a bad replacement.
Serbia appear poised for their best shot yet at the World Cup, an exciting but balanced team that also includes the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Filip Kostic, although there may be an all-powerful battle with old opponents Switzerland for a spot below the last 16 comes.
Perhaps one of the few things missing from Vlahovic, who has scored nine goals for Serbia, is a convincing performance against a top international team. That moment can’t be far off. “I think he can show in Qatar why people think he’s one of the best young forwards in the world,” says Petrov, although the age tag can probably be removed now. “Everything that happens in his football career has a reason.”
Brazil could be the next opponents to indulge their unstoppable momentum.
Additional reporting by Jovan Terzic