Spirited: Slovenia and its March to the 2010 World Cup
It was the smallest nation among the 32 participants to play at the 2010 World Cup. A country of two million people watched a nation defy all odds to finish within minutes of a shocking knockout stage berth. Slovenia's high point in 2010 was upsetting Russia to reach the World Cup. It was an achievement unto itself when just nearly two years earlier the nation fell on hard times and needed a revival.
A journey that started with questions ended with Slovenia achieving the five R's to have a country believe in its football team again: rebirth, restoration, rejuvenation, restoration, and redemption.
Slovenia had returned to the days that helped the country reach both Euro 2000 and the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It certainly was no easy task, but Slovenia defied all odds en route throughout the journey to South Africa.
Three Years of Searching for Optimism
Before its 2010 World Cup qualifying, Slovenia went through a drastic lull that started after the nation missed out on a berth at Euro 2004. Slovenia had rarely had much to celebrate afterwards, with its only highlight being a 1-0 victory over eventual champions Italy early in 2006 World Cup qualifying. Slovenia had trouble finding key players, as nearly 40 players earned a cap for Slovenia in 2004 and 2005.
Winning proved difficult at the time, including a 1-1 draw against Montenegro, who was playing its fourth ever match. Slovenia won only three Euro 2008 qualifiers en route to a sixth-place finish in Group G.
Slovenia had been through lulls before as the lost all three games at the 2002 World Cup. Following that tournament, Slovenia lost faith in soccer. Leading Slovenia throughout most of that Euro 2008 qualifying campaign was Matjaz Kek, but speculation arose that Kek might not be the manager for long.
Kek got another opportunity as he would be in charge of Slovenia during the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. The task would not be easy as Slovenia would face the Czech Republic and Poland, both who reached Euro 2008, as well as possible contenders Northern Ireland, Slovakia.
Surviving Early Qualifiers
Slovenia's journey to South Africa began in Wroclaw, Poland on Sept. 6, 2008. Slovenia looked to score against Poland for the first time. The opportunity seemed likely as Poland's goalkeeper Artur Boruc was suspended for the match. Things started roughly for Slovenia as they allowed a penalty 17 minutes into the game when Bostjan Cesar brought down Jacek Krzynowek in the penalty box, with Michal Zewlakow converting that penalty attempt.
Poland sat back throughout the first half, giving Slovenia a valuable opportunity to capitalize: in the 35th minute, Milivoje Novakovic found Zlatko Dedic inside the penalty box, and Dedic scored to tie the match. Dedic had two chances to win the game, but Slovenia escaped with a 1-1 draw.
It started right for Slovenia on the road, but at home, Slovenia made Maribor its fortress that opponents feared to play at in a game. Before 2008, Ljudski vrt in Maribor last hosted a qualifying match for a major tournament on Nov. 9, 1999. Throughout qualifying, Ljudski vrt was home sweet home for Slovenia. A powerful striker in FC Köln, Novakovic began an impressive qualifying campaign in which he scored twice against Slovakia. Although Slovakia pulled one back after Novakovic's second goal, Slovenia hung on to win 2-1.
Little did Slovenia know that Martin Jakubko goal for Slovakia would be the only goal Samir Handanovic and his defense allowed at home. The defense would face its toughest test of what would be Slovenia's first meeting ever against Northern Ireland.
Slovenia's task was to keep Northern Ireland's David Healy at bay. In the previous qualifying campaign saw Healy as the first player to score 13 goals. Healy was unable to break Slovenia's defense, but Slovenia's offense was looking to break the game open. With 10 minutes remaining, Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic managed to breach the Northern Irish defense in a two-minute span. Ljubijankic scored his first goal in over two and a half years as Slovenia won 2-0.
Optimism arrived for Slovenia and looked to continue against the Czech Republic. Slovenia had hoped to capitalize with Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech, who was not in this match with a severe injury. Slovenia never took advantage, and Libor Sionko scored the only goal to give the Czech Republic a 1-0 victory over Slovenia. The result dropped Slovenia to second place.
But by March 2009, Slovenia nearly fell out of contention altogether.
Rough Luck in Early 2009
It would be another five months before Slovenia played the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier at Maribor. During that stretch, Slovenia suffered two losses, but in a way felt more as two competitors secured easy victories over San Marino.
On Nob. 19, 2008, Slovenia lost 4-3 at home to Bosnia-Herzegovina in a friendly, while the Czech Republic won 3-0 at San Marino in a World Cup qualifier. The Czech Republic's goals came in a 19-minute span in the second half. Similarly, Belgium defeated Slovenia 2-0 in Genk (Feb. 11, 2009); that came the same day Northern Ireland won in San Marino 3-0.
Slovenia was ahead of only San Marino in the standings at one point in World Cup qualifying and scoring dried up as well. While it did manage a scoreless draw against the Czech Republic, Slovenia had no answers at Windsor Park as it lost to Northern Ireland on a Warren Fenney goal 17 minutes from time.
Frantic Climb and the Rise of New Scorers
Slovenia was behind in the standings, but there was still one advantage the nation had. Slovenia still had two meetings with San Marino, which meant a golden opportunity to make up points in the standings. Also, the Czech Republic suffered a stunning upset at home to Slovakia, while Poland was not the same nation that had successfully qualified for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Slovenia faced San Marino at home on Aug. 12 it happened to be the only World Cup qualifying match for that day. Slovenia did well as it cruised to a 5-0 victory. With Robert Koren scored twice and Ljubijankic adding a late stoppage time goal, Slovenia moved up to third place.
Not only was this the first of four straight qualifying victories for Slovenia, but during this winning streak, at least one player score his first ever goal for the country. Two did so against San Marino: Aleksandar Radosavljevic double Slovenia's lead in the 39th minute before Andraz Kirm made it 3-0 in the 54th minute.
Ljubijankic continued his scoring in Slovenia's friendly against England at Wembley Stadium - a 2-1 loss on Sept. 5, 2009. Slovenia did get some encouraging news: both qualifiers in the group (Poland-Northern Ireland and Slovakia-Czech Republic) ended in draws.
Group 3 was still wide open, and Slovenia was still in contention.
Slovenia capitalized on those two draws when it cruised to a 3-0 victory over Poland. Dedic and Novakovic scored in the first half while Valter Birsa capped the scoring with his first ever goal in the 62nd minute. Birsa scored another goal in Slovenia's next qualifier at Slovakia, a 56th-minute strike that came in Bratislava, Slovakia. The hosts were looking just for a draw to qualify directly for South Africa, but Nejc Pecnik scored his first goal for Slovenia in stoppage time to sweep Slovakia in both games.
Slovenia was now in position for a playoff berth, but it could also qualify directly for South Africa with help from Poland's match against Slovakia. Slovenia did its part by winning 3-0 at San Marino - Novakovic scoring his fifth goal of qualifying before Dalibor Stevanovic, and Marko Suler scored in the second half. Stevanovic scored his first goal for Slovenia while Suler had only his second goal for his country.
The Goal That Shook Europe
A Real David vs Goliath
Slovenia still had to settle for a play-off because Slovakia's 1-0 victory over Poland meant Slovakia advanced to the World Cup as group winners. Slovenia's had the task of facing Russia to play in South Africa. It seemed daunting, but Slovenia had met Russia before and enjoyed some success. Russia did finish ahead of Slovenia in 2002 World Cup qualifying, but Slovenia earned a hard-fought away draw before winning on a stoppage time goal.
A lot changed in eight years: Russia was coming off a semi-final appearance at Euro 2008. Russia was looking to be the fourth different nation Guus Hiddink managed to a World Cup as it had numerous stars, including Andrei Arshavin. Russia was a heavy favorite to progress, and two goals from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov in the first leg at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium had Russia on the verge of reaching the tournament. Slovenia got a major lifeline as Pecnik scored a late goal to give Slovenia confidence ahead of its second leg, losing the first leg 2-1.
The same starting 11 players for Slovenia in Moscow began in Maribor four days later in the second leg on Nov. 18, 2009. Slovenia began to attack very early in the game and before halftime. Dedic broke free from two Russian players to find Birsa's cross and scored on the attempt. Slovenia had the away goal advantage, so Russia brought in two strikers to get a vital goal. That plan did not work, and it worsened when Aleksandr Kerzhakov would be sent off in the 66th minute. The game became chippy, and Russia would have Yuri Zhirkov sent off as well.
Slovenia made history as it became the first European nation to reach the World Cup after losing the first leg.
Slovenia vs Algeria
History at Polokwane
Slovenia reached its first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup as it would face Algeria, United States, and England. But Slovenia only played two matches ahead of that tournament - victories over Qatar (4-1 on Mar. 3) and New Zealand (3-1 on June 4) before it kicked off its tournament against Algeria.
Slovenia faced Algeria, having qualified for this tournament via a one-game play-off against Egypt in Omdurman, Sudan. Algeria had finished fourth earlier in 2010 in which it finished fourth in the African Cup of Nations, despite only scoring one goal in the group stage.
Before the game, Algeria got a significant boost when Faouzi Chaouchi and Nadir Belhadj would be in the lineup after their red cards they received from the African Cup of Nations overturned on appeal. Algeria had the game's first opportunity to score when Belhadj curled a free-kick that went over the Slovenian wall before Handanovic tipped the ball. Slovenia's first chance on goal came in the 22nd minute In the 22nd minute, following a foul against Madjid Bougherra, Kirm fired a 35-yard shot toward Bostjan Cesar. Before Cesar could attempt to head the ball into the net, Chaouchi punched the ball clear.
In the 38th minute, Algeria had its third corner of the match, with Karim Ziani curling his shot toward Rafik Halliche. Handanovic left the goal exposed, by Slovenia escaped after the attempt sailed just wide right. Before half-time, Slovenia's best chance of the game came from Valter Birsa. Slovenia strung several excellent passes, ending with Birsa having an attempt on goal and Chaouchi making a great save on goal. Birsa had a similar chance in injury time, but the effort was nowhere close to goal. Forty-five minutes passed, and both teams remained scoreless.
Slovenia' first substitution came in the 53rd minute when it swapped strikers - Ljubijankic replacing Dedic. Algeria's first change came five minutes later - a move that backfired 15 minutes later. Coming on for Rafik Djebbour was Abdelkader Ghezzal, but he received a yellow card for tugging Marko Suler's jersey. In the 73rd minute, Ghezzal would be sent off after Belhadj struck a long pass that found Ghezzal in the penalty area - Ghezzal stretching his arm out to handle the ball.
Slovenia capitalized on the man advantage when captain Robert Koren drove a low shot toward goal. Chaouchi was looking to catch cleanly the ball, but he bobbled it, and the ball went into the net. Slovenia was seeking to hold on for the victory, but even with four minutes of injury time. Algeria had one last chance, with Belhadj crossing into Slovenia's penalty box. Handanovic fumbled the save, allowing Bougherra with an opportunity to tie the match, but his attempt went over the crossbar.
Slovenia won its first ever World Cup match in one of the tournament's ugliest games. Slovenia won the game despite failing to connect on a single cross in 19 attempts, which was the most by a winning team at a World Cup in 36 years.
Slovenia vs United States
So Close and Yet Heartbroken
Slovenia had its first ever World Cup victory; now it looked to become the first nation to qualify for the Round of 16 as it faced the United States at Johannesburg's Ellis Park. Slovenia started impressively at Birsa launched a deep ball that went past goalkeeper Tim Howard. Slovenia doubled its lead off a counterattack as Novakovic found Ljubijankic.
Slovenia was only 45 minutes from the Round of 16, but it started badly early in the second half as Landon Donovan's goal three minutes into the second half gave the United States a big boost. Then, Michael Bradley tied the game in the 82nd minute before Slovenia almost trailed, but a controversial disallowed goal for the United States gave Slovenia a 2-2 draw as it remained atop its group. Now, Slovenia has to face England in Port Elizabeth as they stood 90 minutes away from Round of 16 berth.
Slovenia's line-up against England was similar to its line-up from that September meeting in London - only Ljubijankic did not start during that September meeting. Both teams had alternated opportunities early on until the 23rd minute when James Millner swung a deep pass to find Defoe. Defoe last scored for England against Slovenia, and he did it again when he beat out Suler and Handanovic to score.
Slovenia was in trouble as England, whose World Cup campaign was lackluster, nearly doubled the lead when Wayne Rooney had his attempt saved by Handanovic. Slovenia struggled to find that tying goal until the final 22 minutes. Even while losing 1-0, Slovenia was still minutes away from that Round of 16; that was until news from Pretoria came that Donovan scored a stoppage-time goal against Algeria.
Slovenia was out of the World Cup.
It was the cruelest way to exit from the tournament, but Slovenia fared better than expected and in doing so achieved its five R's it began just two years earlier. Slovenia underwent a rebirth under Kek - in 2007, Slovenia was at its worst ranking in 10 years. In October 2010, Slovenia reached its highest ever ranking at 15th in FIFA, restoring the pride for a nation that sought to be the best in Europe.
Kek redeemed himself on this journey to South Africa, as Slovenia finally garnered the respect for what it did at the 2010 World Cup and rejuvenated its footballing history once again.
- BBC Sport - Football - World Cup 2010 team guide: Slovenia
Everything you need to know about Slovenia's squad for the 2010 World Cup.
- Dedic squeezes Slovenia through as nine-man Russia implode | Football | The Guardian
Slovenia reached the 2010 World Cup finals at the expense of nine-man Russia thanks to Zlatko Dedic's 44th-minute goal
© 2014 Antonio Martinez