After seeing off Egypt in the latest installment of the world’s most violent international football rivalry to qualify for the World Cup, Algeria should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves. The USA, meanwhile, are participating in their fifth straight World Cup, and nobody does utterly groundless footballing optimism quite like England. So why, of all the teams in Group C, are Slovenia – population 2.06 million, registered footballers 30,000, all-time World Cup record played three, lost three – the most confident?
The answer is simple – teamwork. It sounds slightly facile, but Slovenia have doggedly spent the previous eight years creating a national footballing philosophy in which the whole is now able to achieve consistently more than the sum of its parts would suggest. Under the guidance first of Bojan Prašnikar – in his third spell as national coach after being the first to manage the newly-independent Slovenia in 1991 – and the country’s greatest-ever player Branko Oblak, and then current boss Matjaž Kek from 2007, the country slowly developed a system in which collective industry was everything, and individual genius was nothing.
That Slovenia failed to qualify for any international tournaments in this period was largely immaterial, because they were ensuring that 2002, the darkest hour in the national team’s short history, would never happen again.
One man did more than most to get Slovenia to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea – and that same man was largely responsible for sending them home again. With more goals (35), more appearances (80) and more attitude (an infinite supply) than any other player in Slovenian history, the legacy of Zlatko Zahovič has been severely tarnished by his spectacular falling-out with then-manager Srečko Katanec after their opening game against Spain.
Although tensions between the coach and his temperamental midfielder had reportedly been building for some time, Zahovič’s reaction to being substituted after an hour of the match in Gwanju still came as a shock. After the game, which Slovenia lost 3-1, he launched a vicious verbal assault on Katanec, claiming that:
“I can’t stay in a team where you will substitute me in a game like this.”
“I could buy you, your house and your family.”
Zahovič was sent home, from where, chastened by the national response to his actions, he issued an apology. Morale destroyed, Slovenia went on to lose their remaining matches against South Africa and Paraguay. The team had found out the hard way that the price of relying on individual brilliance could be too high. Although Zahovič would appear for the national side for another two years, the seeds had been sown for a complete re-evaluation of how they were to play.
Eight years later, the Slovenian team which will compete in South Africa are the complete expression of a new collective philosophy. Even today the imprint of Zahovič remains on the side, although in a completely different way to how he probably would have imagined.
The Slovenia of 2010 are deliberately a team without stars (although it is also fair to say that the country has yet to produce another player with Zahovič’s raw natural ability). Goalkeeper Samir Handanovič is the best of the bunch, and a good showing over the next month could see the 25-year old earn the move from Udinese to a bigger club which his talent deserves.
His older brother Jasmin, incidentally, is the side’s reserve goalkeeper. The experience of West Bromwich’s Robert Koren sees him assuming the captain’s armband, and he should be joined in the midfield by the well-travelled Andrej Komac and Auxerre livewire Valter Birsa. Particular attention should also be paid to Rene Krkhin, who at just 20 years of age has already made five first-team appearances for Internazionale.
Yet in the end, it is the team’s togetherness which is their greatest asset. Kek has explained that:
“In South Africa we will have 23 star players, and every player will apply his individual skills for the collective good. For me, that’s the essence of being a star.”
Whilst Koren adds:
“We are all good friends who respect each other’s abilities, and that will be our biggest strength.”
In a battle for second place in the group with the USA and Algeria, they believe that this can take them all the way.
Slovenia are at last free of the shadow of Zahovič, and it shows. The country’s football psyche is complex – for example, the game has at times been looked down upon as the sport of immigrants from the more southerly regions of the Balkans – and until the current side could match Zahovič in reaching the world stage he would always be there somewhere, lurking in the national subconscious.
Not any more. The confidence Slovenia feel going into the World Cup comes as much from what they have left behind as what lies ahead of them.
Also see: Slovenia 2010 World Cup Squad