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Miran Pavlin, member of Slovenia's Euro 2000 and 2002 World Cup, guiding Koper to glory in 2010

Maiden: The Dark Horses of Europe in 2010

Miran Pavlin, member of Slovenia's Euro 2000 and 2002 World Cup, guiding Koper to glory in 2010
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"Maiden: The Dark Horses of Europe in 2010"
Caption: Miran Pavlin, member of Slovenia's Euro 2000 and 2002 World Cup, guiding Koper to glory in 2010
Location: SiOL Sportal
Image by: Miha Vidrih

Besides Spain winning the World Cup, ask most soccer fans what the biggest story was in soccer. Some might suggest Inter Milan winning the Champions League, or even few ardent fans might even suggest Egypt’s unprecedented third consecutive African Cup of Nations.

It can easy to miss that amidst the successes of Chelsea (Premier League and FA Cup), Inter Milan (Coppa Italia and Serie A) and Marseille (Ligue One and League Cup), perhaps the most notable stories that unfolded in 2010 involved seven nations that saw a club win the top flight of their league for the first time ever: Iceland, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Turkey.

Whether it involved a dramatic climax, achieving redemption, or even breaking a major monopoly, each of the newly-crowned champions overcame adversity to fulfill its goal at last.

Iceland: Miracle at the Kopavogsvöllur

In recent decades, Kopavogur was a city in Iceland that had been renowned for its women’s football club. Since 1977, Breiðablik had won Iceland’s Premier League of women’s football (Urvalsdeild kenna) 15 times; for their part, the men often yo-yoed within the top two divisions in their history.

Breiðablik has often contended with other winning clubs from Reykjavik and Hafnarfjöður, and manager Olafur Helgi Kristjansson had helped rejuvenate the club since its promotion to the Urvalsdeild (top division) in 2005. The club’s reward would be four straight fifth-place finishes and a first ever Icelandic Cup in 2009. Breiðablik did begin the season with a 1-0 home loss at the Kopavogsvöllur against Keflavik. 

Scoring played a factor as Breiðablik won 13 of the 22 matches, as Alfreð Finnbogason was joint top scorer with 14 goals: two of his came in a 5-0 victory over Valur, the season’s largest home victory. Voted the best Young Player of the Year, Kristin Steindorrson scored 12 goals as well.

Breiðablik had the league’s best goal differential (plus-24), and it would prove vital heading into Sept. 25, the final day of the regular season.

Breiðablik needed results go their way heading into the season finale, as they only managed a scoreless draw at Stjarnan. But, nearest chasers IBV (Vestmannaeyjar) lost 4-1 at Keflavik. Needing to overturn the goal differential, FH (Hafnarfjöður) only managed a 3-0 victory at Fram Reykjavik, a result not enough for FH as Breiðablik won the title on goal difference.

Kazakhstan: Once the bridesmaid, but now a bride at last

In recent years, Tobol Kostanay had often thrown many scare against many other European clubs in club competition. In their domestic league, Tobol Kostanay had been the best club to never win the Kazakhstan Premier League in 18 seasons, having finished second, third of fourth in the past eight seasons.

Tobol Kostanay was on course for its first league title after 22 matches, as they would have to face the best clubs to win the title. Tobol hit a lull afterward: a five-game winless streak culminating in a 5-2 home loss against Aktobe. Avoiding another letdown meant that Tobol Kostanay must win out to avoid Aktobe from overtaking the club for the lead. That was what Tobol Kostanay did; it started with a 1-0 victory at Shakhter Karagandy before a 2-0 home victory over Astana. With control of their destiny in the final day, Tobol Kostanay won 2-0 at Atyrau on Nov 6. to win the title.

Tobol Kostanay scored the second-most goals with 53 goals in 2010; the club boasted the top two scorers in 2010 in Ulugbek Bakayev and Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev. The duo combined to score 31 goals, with Bakayev accounting for six via a penalty kick.

Macedonia: One small club, one giant scalp 

For the second straight year, a Macedonia club won their first ever top flight title. Where the club is based was a major shock. Not only was the club founded in 2003, but the village has one of the smallest populations to boast a champions. Based in the village of Džepčište (a population of over 4,200), FK Renova improved on its third place finish from 2009 to become the youngest team to win the top flight title in Macedonia.

The 2009-10 season in Macedonia could be remembered as one that proved chaotic: three clubs were expelled from the First Macedonian Football League, and two other clubs received point deductions for not even showing up to matches.

FK Renova took advantage of those expulsions, while also making strong use of its home advantage by winning 13 games at home and losing only once. During the season, FK Renova managed to defeat Rabotnički 2-0 early in the season, and FK Pelister twice at home: the second home victory was a 3-1 victory over that game FK Renova the title. FK Renova finished five points clear of Rabotnički. 

En route to winning 17 games in a shortened 26-game schedule, FK Renova led the league in scoring with 45 goals: Besart Ibrahimi and Boban Jančevski accounted for more than half of the goals

Montenegro: Another changing of the guard

Following its independence in 2006, Montenegro began its First League as the top league of the country. Each of the previous three seasons has been close; the 2009-2010 season was no different, and after 33 games, Montenegro had a fourth different club win the league title in as many seasons. 

Rudar Pljvelja notched 22 wins and five draws in 33 matches, doing so with impressive home victories. In that season Ruda Pljvelja notched two home victories against Mogren Grbalj. But perhaps it was Buducnost Podgorica that Rudar had the best success, winning all three games in the series in that season.

Ironically, Rudar Pljvelja won the league title despite losing on the same day: on May 15, Rudar Pljvelja lost 2-0 at FK Berane, but Buducnost Podgorica also lost 2-0 at Sutjeska. That result assured Rudar Pljvelja of the title, in a season that saw the club finish second in goal differential (plus-30); leading the club in scoring was Predrag Randelovic with 19 of the club’s 56 goals.

Netherlands: Redemption for club and coach

A tale of redemption unfolded in Enschede, Netherlands: a club almost ceased to exist after it declared bankruptcy in 2003, while a manager was looking for pride after failing to guide England to Euro 2008.

By May 2010, Steve McLaren not only changed a culture in FC Twente, but he made football relevant in Enschede.

Doing so was tricky during the season, but FC Twente topped its 20 wins from a season ago (and its second place finish) by winning 27 of 32 matches, losing only twice in the Eredivisie. FC Twente may had benefited from a strong home record, but had to fend off Ajax, who was as impressive, having lead the Eredivisie with 103 goals.

The title would come down to the final day of the season on May 2, 2010. It was at NAC Breda that FC Twente had a chance to win the title, and after 23 minutes, Bryan Ruiz scored a team-leading 24th goal for FC Twente. Miroslav Stoch would seal the finishing touches as FC Twente won 2-0 and capped off what proved to be a tale of redemption for both club and manager.

Slovenia: A former veteran guides road glory in the port city

Miran Plavin had been a hero previously for Slovenia: his away goal at Ukraine sent Slovenia to its first ever major tournament (Euro 2000). Nearly a decade later, Pavlin, also a member of Slovenia’s 2002 World Cup squad, guided FC Koper to new heights, even at the age of 38.

FC Koper started the season strongly by going unbeaten in their first 14 games. That bliserting start included a 2-1 victory at Maribor on Aug. 23, 2009, where Pavlin scored the winning goal. FC Koper topped that streak by going unbeaten in 15 matches, as Koper clinched the PrvaLiga with four games to spare. Along with Pavlin, Mitja Brulc and Dalibor Radujko excelled in scoring, as the trio combined to score 34 of the team’s 59 goals. Brulc scored the first goal in Koper’s 2-0 victory at Rudar Velenje, the match that proved to be the title-clinching game.

The aforementioned road victories at Maribor and Rudar Velenje showcased Koper’s successes on the road, particularly with teams having to play four times a season (twice each home and away). FC Koper finished with league highs with 21 wins and 10 draws out of 36 matches.

Turkey: Cracking Istanbul’s monopoly by winning when it matters

Perhaps the biggest shock among the seven first time top flight winners happened outside Istanbul. For a quarter century, Istanbul’s Big Three (Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray) dominated Turkey’s Süper Lig. Only one club outside Istanbul had won the league title: Trabzonspor did so six times, with the last coming in 1984. In 2009, the Big Three monopoly was nearly in danger, as Sivasspor finished second behind Besiktas. 

But Sivasspor struggled in the next season, nearly being relegated. Another contender emerged out of nowhere; that was amazing consider that before the 2009-2010 season, Bursaspor never finished higher than fourth in the top flight. Reaching even the top three seemed out of the question for Bursaspor, when it lost 1-0 at home to Fenerbahce on Sept. 13, 2009 to ink the club to 11th place.

Unlike many other Turkish teams that season, Bursaspor did not have a goalscorer in double digits. However, Bursaspor reeled off crucial victories, including five straight after the home loss to Fenerbahce to go to second place. On March 3, 2010, Bursaspor would reach the top of the table after a 3-0 victory at Diyarbakirspor. Bursaspor relinquished the lead after a scoreless draw against Galatasaray; Bursaspor would be second going into the final matchday.

Bursaspor needed to win and get help, and what unfolded would be the biggest surprise ever to unfold in Turkey. During that 2009-2010 season, Bursaspor defeated six teams twice: none were more impressive than its sweep of Besiktas. 

On May 16, Bursaspor won 2-1 against Besiktas, while Fenerbahce was held to a 1-1 draw against Trabzonspor. Those results would give Bursaspor its first ever Süper Lig title for a team that did not have a major striker. 

Seven nations each had different champions overcome adversity to win their maiden trophies, which comes to suggest that sometimes, the biggest tournaments are not always the events that make a year memorable in sports: it is perseverance that drives teams to be the best, no matter if it is in England or in Montenegro.


More about this author: Antonio Martinez