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Saturday, December 5, 2009
Slovenia not to be underestimated

By Mark Young
Special to

Slovenia is the smallest country to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. And to gain its berth in South Africa, Slovenia stunned one of the game's big powers, Russia, in a two-leg playoff series. How unexpected was that result? Borut Pahor, the prime minister of Slovenia, had promised to clean the mud off the boots of every player if they beat the mighty Russians. The PM was thrilled to oblige during the celebrations in the Slovenia locker room after the victory.

Slovenia, with a population of only 2 million people, is also the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup finals twice. Slovenia, which only gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, made its debut at the 2002 finals and lost to Spain, South Africa and Paraguay for a first-round exit. But its best player, Zlatko Zahovic, left long before the team did, sent home for fighting with head coach Srecko Katanec after the 3-1 defeat by Spain in the opening game.

Fighting spirit is the main characteristic of the current team: its aggression, channeled in a positive direction. There are no big-name players on the team, but head coach Matjaz Kek has got them to punch above their weight. Forget beating Russia, few pundits gave Slovenia a chance to emerge from their qualifying group. The Czech Republic and Poland were seen as the heavyweights of Group C. But Slovakia won the group, and Slovenia finished runner-up. The key factor in Slovenia's edging out the Czech Republic for a playoff spot was that Kek's team beat the Slovaks home and away, while the Czechs picked up only one point against their neighbors.

Robert Koren and Slovenia enter the World Cup as huge underdogs.

Milivoje Novakovic's two goals put away the Slovaks in the teams' first Group C encounter, and he will be the man to watch for Slovenia in South Africa. The 6-foot-4 striker has led the FC Cologne scoring charts for the past two seasons and his pace and size make him a handful for any defense. His partner in attack will be Zlatko Dedic. The tireless Bosnian-born striker hit the winning goal against Russia to spark jubilation in Ljubljana and send Slovenia to South Africa. It was a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Dedic. Two years earlier, Kek told the striker that he was surplus to requirements and had no future on the team.

Team captain Robert Koren is a central figure for Kek. He runs the midfield, but hasn't had much of a run in the West Bromwich Albion first team in England this season. But his commitment to the Slovenia cause cannot be questioned. He delayed hernia surgery so he could play against Russia and has already stated that he will look for a move in the January 2010 transfer window to enable him to get more playing time ahead of the World Cup. Koren's main midfield partner is Aleksandar Radosavljevic. His passing ability is vital for releasing Dedic's penetrating runs and leading the overlapping charges of full back Misto Brecko.

Brecko, Marko Suler and Bostjan Cesar are the three stalwarts of the back four. Slovenia's defense is not physically intimidating, but it got the job done in qualifying, giving up only six goals in 12 games (including the playoff). A lot of the credit for that also goes to goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. He mans the nets for Udinese in Serie A and is one of the most highly regarded young goalkeepers in Europe. He was outstanding in the qualifying campaign, posting seven shutouts.

And Handanovic will most likely need to be outstanding again in South Africa. Kek, who prefers to play a short-passing game built around a 4-4-2 formation, will have his team organized, disciplined and ready to fight for every ball. However, that may not be enough to make a big impact. Then again, the never-say-day die spirit that saw Slovenia rally from a two-goal deficit in Moscow to secure a miraculous playoff victory will be evident again at the finals. And that will make Slovenia a team all opponents will have to treat with respect or risk playing Russian roulette.

Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.