Beware the underdog
Slovenia FanZoner Nick Colling believes England should learn from Russia and not dismiss Matjaz Kek's side.
Last Updated: 13/06/10 12:40pm
A nation of just two million people, Slovenia have already punched above their weight to secure a place at this FIFA World Cup. When one considers that they knocked out Poland, Czech Republic and, finally, Russia - population 142 million - to take their place in South Africa, the achievement becomes near-miraculous.
Yet 2010 is, in fact, this fledgling football nation's second appearance on the game's biggest stage, and they are determined to continue defying the odds when they square up to the world's best.
When the preliminary draw was made, most observers envisaged Group 3 being dominated by Czech Republic and Poland, two teams who had successfully qualified for both Germany 2006 and Euro 2008. As it was, the anticipated favourites melted into the background as the section developed into an enthralling two-way battle between Slovenia and Slovakia.
The Slovenians' success was based on a defence that was arguably the meanest in the entire European zone. True, the Netherlands just edged them in statistical terms, but Bert van Marwijck's side also played two games fewer than a Slovenia team who conceded just four times in 10 group matches.
Indeed, Matjaz Kek's outsiders took their bid for top spot down to the final day, only to be denied when Slovakia - a team they had beaten home and away - somehow dug out a 1-0 win away to Poland.
Despite the Slovenians' impressive efforts, it was clear that Russia could barely contain their glee being paired with them in play-offs, with Alexander Kerzhakov among those describing it as "a favourable draw" for Guus Hiddink's team. How wrong they were. Everything looked to be adhering to the expected script when the Russians raced into a two-goal lead in Moscow, but their unheralded visitors refused to lie down and set up a thrilling return meeting when Nejc Pecnik fired home with just two minutes of the first leg remaining.
The stage was set, and Slovenia rose to the occasion with a performance in Maribor worthy of any arena, one justly rewarded by a decisive Zlatko Dedic strike that secured one of the great qualifying upsets of recent years.
Household names are conspicuous by their absence in this Slovenia squad. Yet although his team's success has been built on collective strength and spirit, Kek is not without talented individuals to call upon. Arguably the best known is Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic, who scored five times during qualifying and, at 30, is approaching this FIFA World Cup at the peak of his powers. The Ljubljana-born striker describes himself as making up one third of Slovenia's "backbone", with goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and captain Robert Koren, a talented attacking midfielder, identified by Novakovic as comprising this key triumvirate.
Given that they only gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Slovenia's football history is shorter than the majority of their South Africa 2010 rivals. They can, however, reflect with pride on having qualified for the World Cup at just the second time of asking, when a team led by Srecko Katanec pipped the likes of Switzerland and, ironically, Yugoslavia to a place at Korea/Japan 2002.
Sadly though, that debut tournament didn't go as planned, with star player Zlatko Zahovic sent home after coming to blows with Katanec following the first of three straight losses during a disappointing group phase.
A player renowned more for his leadership skills rather than any great natural talent, Matjaz Kek was already in his 30s by the time he won his one and only Slovenia cap in 1992. It was at Maribor, the club with which he won three successive titles in the twilight of his playing career, that Kek was given his first managerial post eight years later. After a moderately successful six-year stint, Kek moved on to Football Association of Slovenia in 2006, initially taking charge of the national U-15 and U-16 teams.
By January 2007, however, he had been promoted to the position of senior coach, and has since gone on to exceed all expectations by leading his unfancied team back to the game's greatest stage. As Kek himself said after seeing off the Russians: "Slovenia has realised a dream."