Slovenia out to be taken seriously (Group C team profile)

Ljubljana, May 28 (DPA) Slovenia may be a minnow when it comes to the reputation of football nations worldwide but the Balkan nation is out to show they must be taken very seriously at the 2010 World Cup.

Over their 19-year history, Slovenia have already proved a major obstacle for bigger football sides. They knocked Ukraine out of Euro 2000 and then created another sensation when reaching the 2002 World Cup at the expense of Romania – Slovenia’s only previous World Cup showing.

In getting to the World Cup in South Africa, Matjaz Kek’s team first had to get out of a tough European zone Group 3 which included the Czech Republic and Poland – both of whom were at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 – as well as Slovakia.

The Slovakians ended up taking top honours in the group while Slovenia second, sending them into playoffs showdown with Euro 2008 semi-finalists Russia. But Kek’s Slovenians knocked out the mighty Russians and head to South Africa, where they were drawn into Group C with England, United States and Algeria.

‘All we can do is carry on giving our all and fighting for every ball, like we have up until now. We have three matches against big teams, but the aim is to pick up as many points as possible and to finish ahead of them. After that, we’ll see,’ Slovenian striker Valter Birsa of French side Auxerre told recently.

Slovenia’s main strength will be a tough-as-nails defence, which was arguably the best in Europe in qualification, conceding just four goals in 10 group matches.

Centre back Matej Mavric of Koblenz was confident of his team’s chances at South Africa 2010.

‘I was very pleased when I saw the draw, and I’m confident we can make it into the next round. It’s going to be hard but it’s definitely do-able,’ Mavric told the FIFA website.

‘We have a good team ourselves and we can get through to the next round if we work together. We’re always there for each other – both on and off the pitch. That helped us a lot in qualifying and was probably the most important factor behind our success.’

The leaders for Kek, who took over the Slovenian bench in 2007 after Branko Oblak was fired, will be the axis of Udinese’s gifted goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, midfielder and captain Robert Koren of West Bromwich Albion and Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic, said to be the team’s ‘ideologist’.

If Slovenia hope to achieve their goal of proving to the world that they are to be taken seriously, then that trio of top players will have to perform at their highest level.

The coach: Matjaz Kek, 48, was a central defender as a player who ended his career in Slovenia’s Maribor, after spending his professional prime in Austria, with Spittal and GAK Graz.

He retired just across the sideline, to Maribor’s bench as assistant coach and later head coach. Fired in 2006, amid financial and hooligan troubles in Maribor, Kek took on the Slovenian youth teams, Under-15 and Under-16, while staying on as a part-time dee-jay on a local radio and football commentator for TV Slovenia.

Frustrated by declining results, the Slovenian football federation fired Branko Oblak and invited Kek to coach the national team in 2007. The newcomer set out to balance the lack of extraordinary talent on his squad by imposing a disciplined formation which seldom allows opponents to play to their strengths.

The star: It has to be Robert Koren. ‘The star is the team,’ said Slovenia’s captain Koren when

asked who is the top player of his squad. The 29-year-old offensive midfielder, playing for newly-promoted English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion, has carried the leadership burden over six difficult years.

Neither he nor the team performed well until the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup. In 2004, he made the somewhat curious move to the Norwegian club Lillestrom and was rewarded with the move to England in 2007.

Koren nearly lost his eyesight in a freak accident when a ball struck him in the face that year. He seemed to gain confidence after recovery.