Group C: Slovenia

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Tiny but tidy, organised if slightly dull, Slovenia might be able to put themselves on the map...

For a nation of just two million people with a historical suspicion of sports that don’t involve sliding down a hill very quickly, to qualify for one World Cup was astonishing; to do it twice in eight years with totally different teams is barely credible.

“It’s very important for the whole country,” says their coach Matjaz Kek. “Our nation has only existed for 20 years and every win in sport can help make sure that people around the world have heard of us.” So delighted was Slovenian Prime Minister Borut Pahor that he came good on a promise to clean the team’s boots if they made it to South Africa.

No prime ministerial polishing was in the offing when they lost 1-0 to Northern Ireland in Belfast last April, but that night Kek told his players calmly that all they had to do to qualify was win their four remaining games. They did just that, the pick of them being a 2-0 win in Slovakia, to set up a play-off against Russia.

Slovenia found themselves 2-0 down after an hour, but nicked an away goal, and then were relatively comfortable 1-0 winners at home (although they were helped by the absurd dismissal of Russia’s Alexander Kerzhakov).

The lessons were obvious: Slovenia are not to be underestimated, and they have sufficient self-belief to keep battling even as the game seems to be going against them. “We have a very young team and we must work and try very hard in training,” says Kek. “We have discipline and great motivation. We’re a small country but we have the chance to do something good."

Slovenia’s qualification, above all else, is a triumph of organisation. They set up in a straightforward 4-4-2, play a neat, short-passing style, keep things simple and work extremely hard. This side is not as exciting as the team of eight years ago, but they may be better placed to make it through the group without a turbulent ego like Zlatko Zahovic, who quit the squad in 2002 after a bust-up with manager Srecko Katanec.

Their highest-profile player is probably the Cologne target-man Mile Novakovic, but having dragged himself up from lower league football in Austria, he has nothing like Zahovic’s self-regard.

Auxerre’s Valter Birsa is slowly finding his feet at international level and the 19-year-old Internazionale playmaker Rene Krhin has potential as a creator, but this is a team lacking obvious flair or creativity. They will keep things tight, and they have the capacity to retain possession, but it is hard to see how they could ever take the initiative in a game.

Interesting fact
Slovenia is the smallest country to qualify for two non-consecutive World Cups.

The Coach: Matjaz Kek
When the undemonstrative Kek led Maribor to successive championships, his critics said it was because they were richer than everybody else. At first, fans nicknamed him ‘Kekec’, a slang term for a fool; now everybody’s remembered that Kekec was the resourceful hero of a popular Slovenian film of the 1950s, who defeated his enemy by setting an owl on him in a narrow tunnel.

Key Man: Zlatko Dedic
To call him a B-grade Craig Bellamy sounds harsh, but his tireless running off Novakovic is reminiscent of the Welsh forward.

Probable Team (4-4-2): Handanovic; Brecko, Cesar, Suler, Jokic; Birsa, Koren, Radosavljevic, Kirm; Dedic, Novakovic

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the players
Q&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation   

Algeria, June 13, 12.30pm, Polokwane
England, June 18, 7.30pm, Cape Town
USA, June 23, 3pm, Tshwane/Pretoria

Qualified Runners-up in UEFA Group 3
Poland (A) 1-1
Slovakia (H) 2-1
Northern Ireland (H) 2-0
Czech Republic (A) 0-1
Czech Republic (H) 0-0
Northern Ireland (A) 0-1
San Marino (H) 5-0
Poland (H) 3-0
Slovakia (A) 2-0
San Marino (A) 3-0
Russia (A) 1-2
Russia (H) 1-0

World Cup record
2002 1st Round

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