Slovenes celebrate after qualification

LJUBLJANA - The centre of Ljubljana was packed on Thursday as thousands of football fans gathered to greet the Slovenia team which beat Russia in a play-off to qualify for next year's World Cup finals.

Slovenia's 1-0 win over Russia on Wednesday in the country's second largest city Maribor, earned them a spot in South Africa on the away goals rule after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

"Ljubljana is proud to greet its champions," mayor Zoran Jankovic told a crowd of more than 10,000 people and promised to build a new sports stadium within a year as the city's present one is too small and outdated for international matches.

This is the second time Slovenia, which has only two million citizens, has qualified for the World Cup. The country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and made its debut at World Cup finals in 2002.

"Slovenia goes forward," shouted the crowd carrying flags, letting off firecrackers, and singing and dancing to the live music of some of Slovenia's most popular singers.

The soccer team were dressed in T-shirts with the slogan "I feel South Africa" on the back, referring to a popular Slovenian tourist campaign "I feel Slovenia".

Slovenian coach Matjaz Kek promised supporters the team would not disappoint them in South Africa.

"Let's bow to these boys once again for making Slovenia proud. I am sure they will not disappoint at the World Cup," he said.

"This is a historic day. Every country in the world wants to make it to the World Cup and we did it once again," said 47-year-old Andrej Jamnik, waving with a large Slovenian flag.

"Maybe our team will not win the World Cup but I think they will go far in that competition if they keep trying so hard. We are proud of them," said 29-year-old Urska Kozamernik with her three-month-old son who did not seem to mind the noise and the crowd.

President Danilo Turk, who attended the match in the company of his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, organised a special reception for the team on Thursday, while national TV cut its transmission from parliament to show the welcome for the team in the centre of the capital.