2010 WORLD CUP PREVIEW: SLOVENIJA (SLOVENIA)
After surprising the world by beating Russia, Slovenia is out to prove that no matter how small you are, you can win big in the world of soccer. Slovenia, the smallest country to qualify this year, now heads to South Africa where they will try to keep their fairy tale story alive.
Do they have a chance to win?
Probably not in a tournament that, throughout its storied history, has only seen seven countries win including major powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Uruguay.
Do they have a chance to win some points in a weak group that includes Algeria, England, and the United States?
That may depend as much on their style and their coach, who was ridiculed when he was first selected to coach the National Team, as it does on any of the individual players. Now, after upsetting Russia, the coach is a hero and has Slovenia playing his quality of soccer...the type that relies on defense, teamwork, and the type that can win games.
Algeria: June 13
United States: June 18
England: June 23
The Slovenia “Green Dragons” are elated to be in the World Cup. They have qualified once before in 2002, and they were the smallest country ever to participate in the World Cup until Trinidad and Tobago qualified in 2006.
But, without a strong soccer heritage and a lack of firepower and star power, it will be extremely difficult for them to get out of their group. Even with the experts calling this the weakest group in the Cup, Slovenia may have problems scoring and winning games.
They won’t, though, have problems playing defense and stifling competitors’ strikers. Their best chance to win is the first game against Algeria in Polokwane.
“Les Fennecs” (Desert Foxes) are a rough and rugged team that is known for brutal tackles and ferociously-aggressive play. English coach Fabio Capello called them “the most dangerous side in our group” as reported by the Daily Mirror. But, if Slovenia can keep to their short-passing game and not let the Algerian defenders take them off their game, they have a chance to claim their first victory ever in World Cup competition.
Then they travel to Johannesburg five days later to play the United States. In a true size mismatch, Slovenia is smaller than 48 of the 50 U.S. states.
Against the U.S., Slovenia runs into a dangerous, but inconsistent team which they may be able to frustrate. It all depends on which U.S. team shows up, how the U.S. attack deals with the shut-down defense of Slovenia and, to some extent, how the earlier U.S.-England matchup played out. Expect the U.S. to win in a low-scoring contest.
Had Slovenia drawn the U.S. in the first match, they might have had a better chance to play for the tie, as Slovenia would have possibly gone all out while the U.S might have taken a more strategic approach and played for the single point while they built momentum for the next matches.
Slovenia’s third game in the group is with England, five days later and 1075 km away in Port Elizabeth. While England has not had much success over the last few Cups, they will be looking to make a statement.
England players who are still recovering from injury, and, depending on how they stand, they could rest their weary for the next Round. Still, they should get through 29th -ranked Slovenia since the English have something to prove, and Slovenia will be in its way.
The best chance for Slovenia will be that, since virtually none of the Slovenian players play for major European clubs, the England players are not familiar with the style and personality of Slovenia. While both top-seeded England and United States will be comfortable playing each other, Slovenia will be somewhat of a mystery.
Still, expect England to overcome the Green and Blue of Slovenia in a close game.
The key to Slovenia’s hopes is not a player, but a coach and his system.
Coach Matjaz Kek was not the choice of the nation when he replaced local hero coach Brane Oblak two years ago. He was branded as "Kekecm," a Slovakian term for “naive fool.” But it was Kek who showed the people, the players, and the world that he was no fool at all. And he certainly was not naïve.
He is a defensive specialist who played 10 years as a defender in Austria, and then ended his career in the Slovenian town of Maribor, where he was born. Doing what he does best, he immediately replaced the classic Balkan 3-4-1-2 with a defensive style that relies on a short-passing 4-4-2, with two attacking backs.
His and the team’s success caught the attention of Europe and the world. Playing in a qualifying group that included the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, San Marino, and Slovakia, they finished second behind Slovakia with a 6-2-2 record.
In 10 group qualifying games, Slovenia was undefeated at home and allowed only four goals...a testament to their new defensive style. When they faced off against Russia in a two-game playoff, it surprisingly was not their defense, but an away goal scored in the 87th minute of the match in Russia, which broke the tie for Slovenia giving them the biggest upset this year in soccer and qualifying them for the World Cup for the second time ever.
Coach Kek does have an interesting group of players. His defense will be anchored by Bojan Jokic and Miso Brecko. They will be spelled by Bostjan Cesar who can create problems for opposing strikers with his 6’5” height. In fact, this team from this tiny nation will boast the tallest line-up in the Cup with only four players on their recent call up list under 180 cm, or 5'10".
Slovenia’s midfielders are likely to be West Brom’s Robert Koren and Aleksandar Radosaviljevic, who probably gets the nod over the quicker Andrej Komac because of his passing ability. Slovenia will also count on 19-year-old Rene Krhin, who has three caps and is just starting to come into his own with Italian giants Inter Milan.
If there is a rising star on the defense, it is 25-year-old keeper Samir Handanovic. He has been a fixture at Udinese in Italy for many years, and, if he plays well, he may be headed to a better-known club. Many look to him as potentially one of Europe’s next top goalkeepers.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Slovenia is known as a well-conditioned, disciplined team. Plus they are a very young team with the average age being 27.32. If they can use their conditioning and their youthful exuberance to out-hustle other teams, they could continue their Cinderella story. Their short-passing game could prove problematic for other teams like Algeria and even England, if these teams tire of Slovenia’s relentless ball-control.
They also have the entire country behind them, which could prove a big intangible.
While another team in Slovenia’s boots could take the approach that they have already accomplished more than expected, that is not Slovenia. Expect them to play hard every game, and keep the scores low.
This team is also a very patriotic team dedicated to their soccer, which is not the most popular sport in their country. Still, that may be changing as thousands of people from this tiny country of only two million traveled with their team to see their qualifiers. The Prime Minister even promised that if they qualified, he would “wipe their boots.” When they did, he kept his promise.
Slovenia is not known for proficient goal scoring, and they will have to depend on their defense to keep games close.
Their offense is their primary weakness, but they do have some experience in the front. Milvoje Novakovic plays for Germany’s FC Cologne with 51 goals in 108 matches and is Slovenia’s fifth all-time scorer with 12 goals in 33 games. He will be the key target of Zlatko Dedic who plays for Germany’s Bochum Soccer Club and never seems to tire. To keep the offense refreshed is 23-year-old Valter Birsa, who combines skill and speed on the wing for his Club, Auxerre, who sit in second place in France’s Ligue Un.
Coach Kek can and will switch up his attack to manufacture goals. Against San Marino in World Cup qualifying, this defensive coach went to a three-man attack, and Slovenia won 3-0. Still, goals will be hard to come by, which Slovenia will need if they are to advance.
IT WOULD BE A GREAT WORLD CUP IF…
The smallest team in the tournament pulls off another big upset.
The people of Slovenia are already behind this tiny country. If they by some chance beat one of Group C’s top-seeded teams, the World will take notice. Everyone loves underdogs, and there is no team better poised to continue their fairy tale story than Slovenia.
This country has only been around since 1991 with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. A win for such a young country, with such a young team and such a budding soccer tradition would be great for the country and great for the Cup.
IT WOULD BE A DISASTER IF…
There won’t be a disaster. By doing so well in qualifying, Slovenia has hopefully put themselves on the soccer map, at least this year.
No one, except perhaps themselves, think they can go very far. In a way, by beating Russia, they have already “won” their Cup. With their stout defense, all their games should be close, and, against the top seeds, a close game will be like a win for this small nation with a big heart.
Slovenia will get their first points ever in Cup competition. They will not get out of the first Round, but they will make an impact. They will show the world that small countries can accomplish big things.
They will show the world that soccer is a disciplined, team sport, and when everyone does his part, good things happen. Their first ever Cup win may come against Algeria, and, if that happens, the celebration will be on in Slovenia. There will be a reason this year to proudly sing their national anthem, “Zdravljica” which means “A Toast.”
Here’s toasting the upset-minded team from Slovenia.