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Updated: June 6, 2010 01:31 IST

Slovenia: a tiny nation making a habit of thinking big

Christopher Clarey
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TEAM-SPIRIT: Slovenia will rely on collective will rather than collective flair. Here Slovenia’s Milivoje Novakovic (left) celebrates his goal with teammate Bostjan Cesar during a friendly. Photo: AFP
TEAM-SPIRIT: Slovenia will rely on collective will rather than collective flair. Here Slovenia’s Milivoje Novakovic (left) celebrates his goal with teammate Bostjan Cesar during a friendly. Photo: AFP

Roam the mountains and vineyards of Slovenia, and its citizens and soccer players will regularly remind a foreign visitor of two verities.

This is not Slovakia (a very touchy subject).

This is a very small country: about the size of New Jersey and home to about 300 million fewer inhabitants than its future World Cup opponent, the United States.

But for people who come from a very small place not named Slovakia, Slovenians make a habit of thinking big.

Prolific

Since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country has won 15 medals in the Summer Olympics and seven in the Winter Games, including three this year in Vancouver.

It also has produced several NBA players, including Sasha Vujacic of the Los Angeles Lakers, a reserve guard whose profile has risen considerably since he started dating the Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova.

But with just over 2 million people, Slovenia will be the least populous of the 32 nations taking part in this month's World Cup finals.

“When we are on the pitch, we are not thinking how small we are,'' the team captain, Robert Koren, said recently in an interview.

“We are coming to this World Cup like underdogs, but we will be up for it.''

Slovenia, after all, also qualified for the 2000 European championships and the 2002 World Cup.

But the truth is that many Slovenes remain quite surprised, as well as grateful, about what happened in Maribor in November, when Slovenia qualified for South Africa by upsetting Russia, 1-0, in the return leg of their playoff.

“All of my village was in one pub, and when we scored the goal I was crying,'' said Blaz Kecko, an 18-year-old Slovene.

Kecko shared the memory while standing next to the site of the match: the 12,435-seat Ljudski Stadium.

Though a new 16,000-seat Stadium is nearing completion in the capital, Ljubljana, the heart of soccer in Slovenia is in Maribor. It is where the national team has played its major games for several years, where fans support their local club teams even in times of mediocrity.

It is also the fief of the national team coach, Matjaz Kek. It is where he and his players became national heroes as Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, watched grimly from the stands and the Slovenian Prime Minister, Borut Pahor, hustled down to the locker room to fulfil his promise to shine the team's shoes if it pulled off the upset.

“When you have that kind of success, everybody wants to be a part of it,'' defender Marko Suler said.

Considering that Kek, a former defender and television commentator, was almost fired when Slovenia failed to qualify for the 2008 Euro, it has been quite a turnaround.

Lucky

“First I was lucky, and now it's lucky for Slovenia and the people who left me in my job,'' said Kek, who was hired in 2007. “I believed all the time. I believed every minute of every match and in both our games against Russia. And I'm very happy and proud for my guys, because they played nice football, too.''

Style counts for Kek, whose team will compete in the same World Cup group as England, the United States and Algeria.

But Slovenia is no Spain or Brazil. It is much more reliant on collective will than collective flair. Its hallmark is organization and excellent defence. It allowed just four goals in its 10 qualifying games, one reason being the play of the young goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

“You have guys playing in second-class European clubs hungry for success, and the only possibility to reach it and maybe grab a good contract is through the national team,'' said Urban Laurencic, a soccer commentator for RTV Slovenija. “Kek is the guy who was able to persuade them that they are going to have to follow his rules, his tactical approach and then they are going to have the chance of a lifetime.''

Handanovic, 25, plays in Italy's Serie A for Udinese. And talented Slovenes have been leaving home to play for a living since Slovenia was the northwestern area of Yugoslavia and the powerhouse clubs were in Belgrade and Zagreb.

Since independence, the flow of talent has accelerated. Of the 23 players on Slovenia's final World Cup roster this week, 21 play for foreign clubs. The 11 regular starters are scattered among seven countries, including Belgium, Poland and Germany.

“Club football in our country is not on the level we want,'' said Koren, who played last season in the English second division for West Bromwich Albion before being released last month.

Koren will turn 30 in September, and the well-travelled striker Milivoje Novakovic is 31.

But the majority of Slovenia's players are in their mid-20s and played on national youth squads together, which is one explanation this team competes and communicates so well despite being scattered across Europe for club duty.

“Sometimes soccer is not played only with the legs but also with the heart and the head,'' said midfielder Valter Birsa, 23. “Friendship is sometimes bigger than star players, and I think that put us in the World Cup.'' New York Times News Service

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