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Slovenia are one of the countries looking to spring an upset int this week’s World cup play-offs

Along with complete surprise package Bosnia, Slovenia would not have been many fans’ first choices for a play-off place for World Cup 2010 – and probably nobody’s last Easter. Back then, Matjaz Kek’s men drew a goalless game they should have won at home to the Czechs, and lost to Northern Ireland in Belfast.

Now a buoyant Slovenia face an unconvincing Russia side over two legs, with a return to the World Cup in prospect. What happened in six months?

First, the Slovenes, whose national side dates back less than 20 years, won their last four matches on the bounce, without a single goal conceded. Secondly, key teams in Group 3 slipped up, most notably Poland, forcing the departure of their manager Leo Beenhakker, and, briefly, Slovakia. Slovenia’s shock victory in Bratislava left Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel in tears on the Tehelne Pole turf, although the eventual group winners rallied to repeat Slovenia’s feat of 2002 and make a World Cup finals appearance for the first time. Now Slovakia could be joined by Slovenia.

“We feel that the Slovene people trust in us again, we sense that they belong to this team – and this excites me,” said Maribor legend Kek at the press conference after the play-off draw was made.

“I am proud of what we have achieved so far in this campaign. The Slovene national team is once again the topic of every other conversation and media story. I am happy that we qualified for the play-offs but now that we’ve come this far, the only thing is to win, no matter which opponent stands in our way.”

It’s an attitude that stood Kek in good stead during his time at Maribor. A player at this provincial football hotbed for over a decade, with stints in Austria in between, this three-time title-winning centre back won one cap right after Slovenian independence in 1991. He moved up to assistant club coach, then coach, during Maribor’s golden period when they qualified for the Champions League.

It is no surprise, then, that the Russians will be facing Slovenia at Maribor’s Ljudski Vrt, the People’s Garden, a 12,000-capacity bowl of noise whose acoustics have helped given it the nickname of Nogometni hram – “Temple of Football”.

Kek then earned his spurs coaching the Under-15 and Under-16 national sides. There he familiarised himself with the best players coming out of Ljubljana, Maribor and elsewhere. As the Slovene FA spokesman Matjaz Krajnik put it: “Russia have scores of players they can call on. Here in Slovenia we have only 20, 25 maybe, that can be categorised as international quality.”

Kek knows them all. Remarkably, of his core squad, none play their league football in Slovenia. Based at places as diverse as Tom Tomsk in Russia, Nacional of Madeira, Barnsley and Nicosia, they come together for national duty with a sense of pride and focus. Kek makes sure to spend time with each player personally, giving the sense that none is more important than the other.

“For World Cup 2002 we had a figurehead in Zlatko Zahovic,” said Krajnik. “After he left, we still felt the need to have a new figurehead, but each one crumbled under the responsibility. Now we have a team, pure and simple.”

Some players still stand out. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic has kept Slovenia’s goals against record to four, the lowest of any European team except Holland, who played two matches fewer. Guarding him has been Grenoble centre-back Bostjan Cesar, who impressed Tony Mowbray during a loan spell at West Bromwich.

Current West Brom midfielder Robert Koren, a near ever-present at the Hawthorns last season, is Slovenia’s motor. Up front, Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic have both scored in recent internationals. None of Slovenia’s first XI play at a star team.

“What matters most is our small Slovenia,” concluded Kek. “If you look at it this way, you have this vast Russia and this tiny Slovenia… in life it’s always the underdog wanting to beat the big favourite, and people always want the little guy to win. Why can’t it happen to us again?”

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