It was the smallest nation to reach the 2010 World Cup. But en route to reaching that tournament, Slovenia underwent the four R’s throughout the odyssey: rebirth, restoration, redemption and restoration.
The nation searched long and hard to establish an identity and achieve what its predecessors did nearly a decade ago in reaching both Euro 2000 and the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Before its first 2010 World Cup qualifier, Slovenia rarely had anything to celebrate. They were the only nation to defeat Italy (who would win the 2006 World Cup), but Slovenia rarely found an identity, as nearly 40 players would play for Slovenia in 2004 and 2005. Winning was hard to come by, especially in friendlies, where the team even stumbled to a 1-1 draw against Montenegro, who was playing just its fourth ever mach. In August 2007, Slovenia sunk to 94th in the FIFA World Rankings.
Slovenia won only three Euro 2008 qualifiers as the nation finished sixth in its group. All of a sudden, it was a similar situation that had unfolded following its first World Cup qualifying campaign: a nation had lost faith in soccer. Leading Slovenia throughout most of that Euro 2008 qualifying campaign was Matjaz Kek, but struggled mightily. Speculation arose that Kek would be replaced; Kek would be given the opportunity to guide Slovenia back to the World Cup. To do so, Slovenia would face two Euro 2008 contenders in the Czech Republic and Poland, two upstarts in Northern Ireland and Slovakia and minnows San Marino.
Qualifying began in Wroclaw, Poland on Sept. 6, 2008. Slovenia faced Poland on three previous meetings, looking to score its first ever goal. But after 17 minutes, Slovenia allowed a penalty kick when Bostjan Cesar brought down Jacek Krzynowek in the penalty box. Michal Zewlakow converted a penalty kick, and Slovenia trailed 1-0. Poland sat back throughout the first half, and Slovenia made Poland pay; in the 35th minute Milivoje Novakovic found Zlatko Dedic inside the penalty box, as Dedic scored. Dedic had two opportunities to even win the game, but Slovenia escaped with a 1-1 draw.
Before 2008, Ljudski vrt in Maribor last hosted a qualifying match for a major tournament on Nov. 9, 1999; but throughout qualifying for South Africa, Ljudski vrt would be difficulty for opponent to score.
He assisted in the tying goal in Poland, but Novakovic, a key figure in FC Köln in Germany, became the central figure for Slovenia throughout qualifying, especially against Slovakia. Novakovic opened the scoring in the 22nd minute before doubling Slovenia’s lead in the 82nd minute. Slovenia allowed a Martin Jakubko goal a minute later, but little would be known that this was the only goal allowed at home in qualifying, as goalkeeper Samir Handanovic led a stubborn defence that saw Slovenia give up only six goals in their 12 qualifiers.
After winning 2-1 against Slovakia, Slovenia continued its home fortunes in their first ever meeting against Northern Ireland. Defense kept Northern Ireland’s David Healy at bay, but its offense needed something. That came late in the match, when goals from Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic (scoring his first goal in over 30 months for his country) came within a minute apart, as Slovenia won 2-0.
Four days later, Slovenia traveled to the Czech Republic, hoping to capitalize on a major injury from Czech Republic’s goalkeeper Petr Cech. Cech was not in the match, but Slovenia never capitalized, as Libor Sionko scored to hand Slovenia a 1-0 loss. Slovenia was still tied in second place after the loss. After five months however, Slovenia would be only ahead of San Marino.
Slovenia lost their next two friendlies: a tough 4-3 home loss against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Nov. 19, 2008 and a 2-0 loss at Belgium in Genk on Feb. 11, 2009; but, the Czech Republic (Nov.19) and Northern Ireland (Feb. 11) both traveled and won at San Marino, and thus overtook Slovenia in the standings. Slovenia had a tough time scoring as well: a scoreless home draw against the Czech Republic on Mar. 28, 2009 was followed by a 1-0 loss at Northern Ireland four days later.
But, one advantage Slovenia had was the two meetings against San Marino that still had to be played. The first came on Aug. 12 in the only World Cup qualifying match for that day. While they did not obliterate their opponents, Slovenia won 5-0 to move into third place, with Robert Koren scoring twice (19th and 74th minute) for Slovenia, and Ljubijankic adding a late stoppage time goal. This match would mark the first of four straight qualifiers that a player scored their first ever goals for Slovenia. Two did so. as Aleksandar Radosavljevic (39th minute) and Andraz Kirm (54th minute) scored goals.
Ljubijankic continued his scoring, as he scored Slovenia’s goal in a 2-1 friendly loss at England in Wembley Stadium. But Slovenia got a huge boost in qualifying on that same day; the Poland-Northern Ireland and Slovakia-Czech Republic matches ended in draws. Four days later, Slovenia crushed Poland 3-0 victory at home, with Dedic and Novakovic scoring in the first half and Valter Birsa scored his first ever goal in the 62nd minute.
Birsa scored another goal in Slovenia’s next qualifier at Slovakia, a game Slovenia needed to prevent Slovakia from qualifying for the World Cup. Birsa’s goal broke a scoreless draw at Slovakia in the 56th minute. before Nejc Pecnik’s goal three minutes from stoppage time sealed a 2-0 upset at Slovakia.
All of a sudden, Slovenia not only was in position for a play-off berth, but could even qualify directly to South Africa. Slovenia did its part by winning 3-0 at San Marino, with Novakovic scoring his fifth goal in qualifying. Dalibor Stevanovic scored his first goal in the 68th minute, before Marko Suler scored his second ever goal for Slovenia in the 81st minute. Slovenia had to settle for a play-off, as Slovakia managed to escape Poland with a 1-0 victory. Slovenia’s task would be daunting, as they would have to face mighty Russia to reach South Africa.
Slovenia had faced Russia before, as the nations meet in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, which both nations did reach. Slovenia had bragging rights, as they drew in Russia and won at home on a late goal.
However, Russia had Guus Hiddink as the manager and numerous stars on its roster, including Andrei Arshavin. Russia was favored to progress, and two goals from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov had Russia on the verge of reaching the tournament; Pecnik scored a late goal to give Slovenia a lifeline ahead of the second leg despite losing 2-1. The same starting 11 players for Slovenia in Moscow would start in Maribor four days later in the second leg on Nov. 18, 2009.
Slovenia began to attack very early in the game; before hafltime, Dedic was able to break from two Russian players, as he found Birsa’s cross and scored. Russia brought in two strikers, but Aleksandr Kerzhakov would be sent off in the 66th minute. The game became chippy, and Russia would have Yuri Zhirkov sent off as well. The final whistle blew and Slovenia became the first European nation to reach the World Cup after losing the first leg, thanks to its away goal.
As Kek described, Slovenia realized its dream.
Before the tournament, Slovenia played only two friendly matches; both matches came at home, defeating Qatar 4-1 in March and New Zealand 3-1 just over a week before its first World Cup match.
Above all, Slovenia looked to improve from its first World Cup in 2002; there, they lost all three games, but it was the story regarding an argument between manager Sretko Katanec and his dismissing of main striker Zlatko Zahovic that doomed Slovenia. This time around, Slovenia had a good chance of possibly reaching the knockout stage as they would face Algeria, the Untied States and England.
Slovenia began its World Cup campaign in Polokwane on June 13, 2010. Opportunities were hard to come by, but Slovenia would have an opportunity in the 72nd minute, when Algeria’s Abdelkader Ghezzal was sent off 15 minutes after coming into the game. In the 78th minute, Robert Koren hit a soft shot that the Algerian goalkeeper weakly mishandled and let into the net. Slovenia had its first ever World Cup victory, and would have an opportunity to become the first nation to qualify for the Round of 16.
Against the United States, Slovenia was course to do so at Ellis Park in Johannesburg; goals from Birsa and Ljubijankic has Slovenia leading 2-0 at halftime. However, Slovenia allowed a Landon Donovan goal three minutes into the second half, before Michael Bradley tied the game in the 82nd minute. Slovenia almost lost the game; after a controversial disallowed goal, however, Slovenia was still atop its group following the 2-2 draw, and had to face England in Port Elizabeth.
England took the lead in the final match on a goal from Jermain Defoe in the 23rd minute and was content to play defensively. Slovenia searched for the tying goal, but it would not come. Even with the 1-0 loss, Slovenia was still on course to reach the Round of 16, as the Algeria-United States match in Pretoria was scorelss; that was until a stoppage time goal from Donovan sent Slovenia crashing out of the World Cup.
Despite another early exit, Slovenia fared better than expected and in doing so achieved its four R’s. Slovenia underwent a rebirth under Kek, while also restoring the pride that is failed to achieve back in 2002. Kek redeemed himself on this journey to South Africa, as Slovenia gain respect from the footballing world for its brave performances at the World Cup.