How dark horses Serbia and Germany reached FIBA World Cup final

The last two teams standing defeated NBA star-studded USA and Canada to make it to an all-Europe basketball World Cup final.

Serbia's Nikola Milutinov in action
Serbia will play in their first FIBA World Cup final since 2014 after beating Canada in the semifinals [Lisa Marie David/Reuters]

Manila, Philippines – Most fans and experts had predicted a North American basketball World Cup final because Teams USA and Canada are both built on NBA stars.

Although Serbia and Germany lack the star power of their rivals, the final will instead be an all-European affair.

On Sunday, Serbia will play in their first FIBA World Cup final since 2014, giving them the chance to win their first gold for 21 years after beating Canada in the semifinals. Germany have reached their first ever final after defeating five-time winners the USA in their maiden semifinal.

“I think European basketball has been on the map of international basketball for a few years,” Spanish basketball great Pau Gasol said at the FIBA World Cup global ambassadors talk show.

“The game has become so global. Players have grown. Players have believed. They’ve gotten better globally, and that’s a credit to a lot of different people.

“It’s great to see two teams from Europe that have earned their way because it’s not easy to beat a talented USA team and a very good Canadian team who have played well the whole tournament.”

No Jokic, no problem

Serbia are ranked sixth in the world and have been a consistent contender in international basketball, winning the World Cup in 1998 and 2002 and bagging silver in 2014.

But the team suffered a blow ahead of this year’s tournament when top player Nikola Jokic, who recently led the Denver Nuggets to the 2023 NBA championship, opted not to play in the World Cup due to physical and mental fatigue.

Jokic is arguably the best player in the world. He led the 2023 NBA postseason in points, rebounds and assists, and many thought his absence would hurt Serbia’s chances in the World Cup. Even with Jokic, the Orlovi (“eagles” in Serbian) missed a quarterfinal berth at the 2022 Euro Basket.

In the 2023 World Cup, however, Serbia gave an early warning of their potential when they swept aside Puerto Rico, South Sudan and China in Group B. Despite a narrow 78-76 loss to Italy in the second round, a dominant Serbian win over the Dominican Republic punched them a ticket to the knockout rounds, which saw them cruise to victories over Lithuania and a Canadian side featuring NBA stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett and Dillon Brooks.

Crucially, players like captain Bogdan Bogdanovic stepped up in this campaign. Not only did Bogdanovic take on the responsibility of leading the team, he was also smashing FIBA records in the process, surpassing German great Dirk Nowitzki’s 425 points to become the fifth highest scorer at FIBA World Cups with his 427 points.

In their 95-86 semifinal win over Canada, Bogdanovic was the top scorer with 23 points and was supported by teammate Nikola Milutinov, who produced a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double while three other players racked up double digits.

In the post-game mixed zone, Bogdanovic heaped praise on his teammates, including Aleksa Avramovic, who was tasked with guarding Gilgeous-Alexander, saying they all have shown full commitment to the national team since the start of their camp two months ago. Now, they are reaping the rewards.

“I’m happy for other guys like Aleksa Avramovic. He was watching Shai’s highlights and videotapes, and he’s saying: ‘I’ll steal one ball from him. We just need one steal. I’m going to pressure him full court.’ So his defence was unbelievable,” Bogdanovic said.

“I’m just happy with how everyone responded since day one. They saw this as an opportunity to play in the World Cup – a rare chance in life. This is one of the best groups of guys that I’ve played with.”

Serbia also boast a loyal fan base who travelled all the way to Manila and stayed for the duration of the tournament. Despite the disappointing fifth place finish in the 2019 tournament, the fans never stopped believing in the success of the country of 7 million people across all sports.

“The last World Cup didn’t end that well for us, so it’s kind of been a long time coming,” Serbian fan Bozidar Obrdovic told Al Jazeera. “In Serbia, we have high expectations for our national basketball team. We knew that we could make it to the semifinal, and here we are.

“These players have made so many sacrifices to play for the national team, and we appreciate them even more. Playing for our flag is sacred for us Serbians.”

As avid fans of the sport, Filipinos in Manila have also caught Serbian basketball fever. Most Filipinos formed the connection at the 2019 edition of the World Cup as the Jokic-led team competed in the same group as the Philippines. Serbia pummelled the Philippines 126-67.

One local fan told Al Jazeera that he has watched three Serbia games and even bought a Bogdanovic jersey to cheer for his favourite player.

“I just think that in 2019, even though it was traumatic to be a Filipino fan then because of the heartbreaking losses – but that World Cup created so many memories for me, and I just became a really big fan of Bogdan,” Juancho Cuna said. “The more I watch Serbia, the more I become impressed with them.”

A fairy-tale run for Germany

Having never even reached a World Cup semifinal until this year, world number 11 Germany could have easily been counted out for the championship. Even heading into the semifinal as the lone undefeated team in the 2023 World Cup, Germany’s chances seemed dim.

The Germans almost surrendered their quarterfinal to World Cup debutants Latvia in an 81-79 squeaker as scoring leader Dennis Schroeder had a cold night, shooting 4-of-26 from the field. Key player Franz Wagner was also still easing back into the lineup after picking up an ankle injury in their opening game against Japan.

But to everyone’s surprise, Germany came up big against favourites USA and will have a chance to win a historic gold medal.

Trailing the USA by one point at half-time 60-59, Germany pulled away to a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter 94-84. The Germans then fended off a fourth-quarter USA comeback to grab the narrow 113-111 victory.

“For sure, this is the best moment for German basketball. Last year, it was the bronze [at the Euro Basket]. Then this year, it’s gold,” said national team mainstay Johannes Thiemann in the mixed zone.

Germany's Franz Wagner and Isaac Bonga celebrate after the match
Germany’s Franz Wagner, left, and Isaac Bonga celebrate beating the USA in the semifinal [Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Despite the win, the Germans still humbly labelled the USA “the best team in the world” as both squads delivered excellent end-to-end performances, which resulted in a thrilling spectacle.

Germany may have had six players score in the double digits, including player of the game Andreas Obst and returning Wagner combining for 46 points, but the United States still shot better with a 58.5 percent field goal percentage to the winning team’s 57.7 percent.

But Germany had the advantage when it came to team chemistry and composure, which allowed them to maintain the momentum.

“We play as a team. The best player of the game is always a different player, so it shows what kind of a team we are – we move the ball, we play for each other and that’s the key for us,” Thiemann said.

European basketball great Gasol has witnessed the growth of German basketball, having faced Nowitzki, who was pivotal in making Germany a regular competitor in the Euro Basket tournament since 1999.

“For Germany, it was a process throughout the last 20 years,” Gasol said. “What Dirk has been able to do for his country – this is the legacy that he has achieved with his team throughout the years.”

When Nowitzski retired from international competition in 2015, Germany found a new leader in point guard Schroeder, who led the country back to the quarterfinal in the 2017 Euro Basket for the first time in 10 years.

In 2021, Gordon Herbert was appointed head coach and helped Germany start a national team programme that mandated a three-year commitment from selected players. From there, Germany has slowly produced results as they bagged a 2022 Euro Basket bronze – their first podium finish in the tournament since 2005 – and made history in this World Cup campaign.

“Germany took a step forward with the same guys that have gone through those tournaments, gone through those challenges, have gone through those losses as well. It’s a process, and it’s about making steps towards growth and getting better,” Gasol said.

Although the team was emotional and continued to be in disbelief at what they have achieved, Germany head coach Gordon Herbert is certain his team will remain grounded until the end of the campaign.

“After the game, it’s a great win, but we’re not where we want to be yet, and this group of players wants to win gold. One more to go,” Herbert said during the post-game press conference.

Source: Al Jazeera