World Cup 2010 profile – Slovenia – Kek’s men capable of a surprise at South Africa

With a population of just over 2m, Slovenia will be the smallest nation represented at the World Cup. Sport is very important in the nation’s society, with roughly a third of Slovenian adults taking part in some form of sport at least once a week. Football is very popular in the country but has competition from handball, basketball and ice hockey in terms of being the nation’s favourite team sport. Overall funding for sport in the country is very good, with a high proportion of sports centres catering for its small population. Currently ranked 23rd in the FIFA World Rankings, national expectations are high following their surprise qualification by beating Russia in a play-off. Drawn in England’s group, they will be underdogs in every game they play, but supporters will see good results against USA and Algeria as by no means beyond them.

NK Maribor have been the most successful football club in Slovenia since the formation of the Prva Liga and have won eight titles since the league’s inception in 1991 – only three other sides have captured the title. The league itself struggles for decent attendances – not helped by its humble population – while Slovenian club sides have made few inroads into European competitions. That many of the top Slovenian players ply their trade in the lower echelons of Italian, German – and in the case of West Bromwich Albion’s Robert Koren – English football, just shows how little domestic footballers earn in Slovenia due to tiny attendances in the Prva Liga and the last four named squads has seen a solitary domestic league call up in the shape of Maribor goalkeeper Luka Elsner.

Slovenia have generally managed to confound expectations since they began competing as an independent nation in 1992. They were surprise qualifiers for both Euro 2000 and the World Cup in 2002 but their record in both of these tournaments was poor. During Euro 2000 they managed just two points, with one coming in a thrilling 3-3 draw with neighbours Yugoslavia, in which they squandered a three goal lead. Two years later at the World Cup in Japan they were also eliminated in the first round after defeats to Spain, South Africa and Paraguay, with a dispute between star player Zlatko Zahovic and then Coach Srecko Katenec creating a scandal of national proportions. After failing to qualify for the last three major tournaments, few pundits gave them much hope when they were drawn against Guus Hiddink’s much-fancied Russia in the World Cup qualification play-offs last year. They had finished second to Slovakia in a relatively weak-looking qualification group but a Zlatko Dedic away goal against the Russians was enough to put them on the plane to South Africa.

Slovenia’s first game will be against Algeria, and with the USA and England to follow they will need a win if they are to stand any chance of progression to the knock-out stages. They are a team without individuals, instead relying on strict organisation and teamwork. Their top-scorer – Klemen Lavric – has scored just six goals in 25 appearances and currently plays for Austrian club Sturm Graz. If they are to upset the odds in South Africa then support striker Zlatko Dedic will need to be at his best. The scorer of their winning goal in the home play-off match against Russia is a high energy centre-forward, whose ability to drop off the front man and roam deep behind the striker puts him in the mould of Carlos Tevez. His constant harrying and running creates a nuisance for most defenders, but he needs to chip in with more goals, having only managed three in 23 appearances.

Slovenia are managed by the mild-mannered Matjaz Kek who has relatively limited experience when compared to most of the World Cup Coaches. He was appointed in 2007 after leading Maribor to two Slovenian titles, which is not as impressive as it sounds when considering the resources at their disposal compared to the rest of the Slovenian league. He has a team without much individual talent but has turned them into a well-disciplined, well-drilled defensive unit. They epitomize the two-banks-of-four 4-4-2 system, sacrificing individual flair for a rigid system that has proved very effective. Having now coached the side for 31 games he has kept the win percentage at a very respectable 39%. Organisation is the key to his success and Slovenia are still unbeaten at their new noisy and compact national stadium in Maribor. Having said that, they are prone to succumb to more physical European opponents, as proved in the 2-1 friendly defeat to England at Wembley last September.

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