Slovenians hope off-the-field problems don’t upset their World Cup hopes for second time
An ongoing row between the Slovenian FA and the national squad is in danger of crushing the nation’s quietly optimistic feeling about the team’s chances in South Africa.
There has been a very public war over bonuses for qualifying for the tournament and, even though the argument has been settled, fans remain puzzled about the long-term consequences of the dispute.
Sadly, this would not be the first time that non-footballing reasons have ruined the country’s tournament hopes.
In Slovenia’s first appearance at the World Cup, in 2002 in Japan and Korea, their performance in the last two group games were affected by star forward Zlatko Zahovic’s clash with manager Srecko Katanec in the dressing room following their defeat by Spain in the opening match. Zahovic was subsequently sent home.
Nevertheless, Slovenians are still satisfied with the group draw this time round and believe that second place is a realistic goal. The fact that Slovenia play their last group game against England is seen as an advantage as the group favourites could already be through to the second round by then. The hope is that Fabio Capello might field a weaker side, gifting Slovenia an opportunity to cause an upset.
Slovenia did well against England at Wembley in a friendly last September and grew in confidence after that performance. The common opinion is that the fight for second place will go down to the wire and Slovenians view the United States as their main rival. Playing the first game against Algeria is also viewed as good fortune. An opening win would be a big boost for the team.
The nation’s footballers have understandably become very popular since qualifying for South Africa. This generation is different to the one that played at Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup because the players are a product of Slovenia’s football school.
In contrast, all the main performers from Zahovic and Katanec’s team got their football education in the old Yugoslav league. This was viewed as a big advantage for a long time, since the league was much stronger, aiding the development of the players.
Unfortunately, not many fans will be able to support the team in South Africa. The spectacle of 10,000 Slovenians flooding Amsterdam for the Euro 2000 game against Spain is legendary but will certainly not be repeated this time around.
The view from Slovenia
“I believe Slovenia has a good, realistic chance to reach the second round. The team has gelled well in the last couple of months, the performances have been solid and the starting XI basically picks itself after years of tinkering by different managers. There have also been very few injury problems of late – another bonus.”
Tine Zupan, sports journalist
“The group could deceive a lot of fans into thinking we have got one foot in the second round. But it is going to be very hard. We can win the group or finish bottom in it. England will be the favourites, Americans are very strong, while we know little of Algeria – but their players mainly play in France and are strong, fast and technically gifted. We must properly analyse our opponents.”
Zlatko Zahovic, Slovenia’s most-capped player