ISTANBUL (Reuters) - When regional rivals Serbia and Slovenia clash for the European basketball title on Sunday, any outcome will spell victory for the Balkans where passion and natural talent for the game are considered second to none in Europe.
Both countries emerged from the former Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up and, having enjoyed contrasting basketball fortunes so far, they will lock horns for continental supremacy and local bragging rights.
Up to 5,000 fans from each country are expected to make the trip to Istanbul while thousands more will pack bars at home for what should be gripping a final.
Both teams have knocked out wealthier and more resourceful rivals en route to the showdown, with Slovenia mauling outgoing champions Spain 92-72 in a one-sided semi-final.
Serbia, the World and Olympic silver medalists who also finished runners-up at the 2009 Eurobasket, beat Russia 87-79 on Friday to reach the final with a second-string team missing seven regular starters.
Six of them were sidelined with injuries while Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic stayed away to pursue a personal fitness regime ahead of the NBA season which starts next month.
Although depleted, the Serbians came through guided by charismatic coach Aleksandar Djordjevic, a former trophy-laden and high-scoring playmaker who used iron-clad defense to brush aside his rivals in Istanbul.
Djordjevic acknowledged he would have to produce something special to outwit compatriot Igor Kokoskov, coach of the Slovenian side, who won the hearts of neutral fans with a free-flowing game that put his team into their first final as an independent nation.
“Slovenia are the favorites as they have played the best and most entertaining basketball throughout the tournament,” Djordjevic told reporters shortly after Serbia forced Russia into submission.
“They’ve been galvanized by their fans and their confidence has soared with each impressive win, so we are aware that we have a mountain to climb in the final.
“But we have unmatched heart and character and I ask the Serbian fans who throng the Sinan Erdem Dome to show up with a national flag that will stretch across their entire section.
“That will put fire in the players’ hearts and give them the extra wind in the sails which they so richly deserve.”
Kokoskov has built his reputation as an assistant at six NBA clubs, most recently the Utah Jazz where he works in a dual role after taking over as Slovenia’s head coach in 2016.
Having never worked in his native Serbia as a senior head coach, Kokoskov learned his trade in a different environment and pulled no punches when asked to assess what his compatriot had in store for the Slovenians.
“Djordjevic said at his press conference that we were the favorites but there is no doubt in my mind he told his players to go out there and trample Slovenia,” he said.
“He’s got much more experience than me as a player and coach but he can’t fool me. We are headed for a basketball extravaganza.”
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Budapest; Editing by Clare Fallon