If his side are to make a strong start against such formidable opponents, Serbia’s new coach, Dragan Stojkovic, will no doubt need Dusan Tadic to be on song. His country’s captain and most-capped active player, the Ajax man established himself as their playmaker during the qualifiers for Russia 2018. Having come out of Pot 3 in the draw, Serbia finished top of Group D, thanks in no small part to Tadic’s four goals and seven assists.
Though they failed to progress beyond the group phase in Russia, Tadic found some consolation in the shape of Ajax’s thrilling UEFA Champions League run the following season, pulling the strings as the Dutch side reached the semi-finals on the back of some enthralling football.
In conversation with FIFA.com, the 32-year-old attacking midfielder picked out the high points of a career that has been shaped by his passion and love of the game and also spoke of his expectations ahead of what promises to be an exciting new campaign.
FIFA.com: You spent four years at Southampton between 2014 and 2018. How would you sum up your Premier League experience?
I’m very proud of my time in England. We finished higher in the Premier League than Southampton had ever done before and I finished in the top five for assists in three seasons. Some big teams came in for me, but the club didn’t want to let me go after my second season, when we finished sixth – a Premier League best for Southampton. We kept on getting good results through to the fourth season, when we had to fight against relegation. I told the directors that I’d do everything I could to keep the club in the top flight but that I wanted to decide which club I’d leave for at the end of the season, which is exactly how things turned out.
You chose to go back to the Netherlands, where you’d played from 2010 to 2014, to sign for Ajax. You said it was the only club you wanted to join. Why was that?
Ajax are a great club that think big and are always reaching for the top. It’s not just about football with them and they pay attention to every little detail. They want to be the best, to beat every opponent. It’s the perfect club for me. They’ve inspired me ever since I was little. They’ve won the Champions League four times and a host of other trophies. So many football legends and incredible players have played for them too. Ajax is the place where ‘total football’ was born with [Rinus] Michels and with Johan Cruyff, who took the philosophy with him to Barcelona.
The team’s run to the last four of the Champions League in your first season showed you’d made the right decision. Did you expect that kind of success?
Yes, because we had a very strong team and we were playing the best football in Europe. Everyone was behind us, even our rivals. I think we took football forward because a lot of people went out and tried to copy what we were doing and to play like us. We beat Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Juventus by playing some very attractive football. Even against Tottenham in the semis, we won 1-0 away in the first leg and were 2-0 up at half-time in the second. I still don’t understand how we managed to lose. I think we deserved to make the final.
How did you feel when key players like Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong left the following season?
Ajax have this philosophy of bringing young players through and then selling them for big money. I was happy for them but obviously I missed them too. As for me, I decided to stay because I love the club and I like the way we play. The team is always hungry and if we lose a game it’s a problem. I like that.
You’re an unselfish player on the pitch. Is that just part of you or is it something you’ve worked on?
It just comes naturally. It comes from the fact that I’ve always got my head up and I can see everything. When I see a team-mate in a better position than me, I automatically give them the ball.
After doing so well in the qualifiers, Serbia failed to make the knockout rounds at Russia 2018. Do you think the national team has the resources to do better?
It was our dream to qualify for the World Cup. We were so happy when we made it because it was a great achievement for Serbia, something the country had been waiting for for eight years. And we were every bit as disappointed when we didn’t make it to the next round. We knew we were in a strong group, but I think we could have done better.
What does the World Cup mean to you and which players from the competition’s history have made the biggest impact on you?
It’s a childhood dream for me, as it is for most players I guess. When I watched matches as a kid, I pictured myself playing in it one day. Zinedine Zidane was my hero and I loved watching him. Ronaldo was a phenomenal player and made an impact on me too, and so did Ronaldinho. They’re the three I like the most.
What do you make of Serbia’s Qatar 2022 qualifying group, which also features Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan?
It’s a tight group and only one team qualifies automatically. Portugal are a great side and will be the toughest opponents. We played against Ireland recently and we know they’re a solid side too. Luxembourg and Azerbaijan have got some quality as well, so we’ll need to give our all and be at our best to achieve our goal of qualifying.