England’s final opponents, on 23 June, will be Slovenia. Researching this was an awful lot easier than it was for this morning’s report on Algeria, as Slovenia have far less history. As the country only came into being following the breakup of the republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, and played their first game in 1992, I’ve only a couple of pages of notes to work from.
So what I’m trying to say is: a thousand thanks to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent domino rally restructuring of much of Eastern Europe, for making my life that little bit easier.
Anyway, Slovenia qualified for Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002 but on both occasions failed to register a single point. Their World Cup 2002 campaign descended into farce when then-manager Srecko Katanec clashed with Zlatko Zahovic, the most-capped (80) and highest-scoring (35) player in Slovenia’s history following their 3-1 defeat to Spain. Katanec sent Zahovic home in disgrace and the team lost their remaining two fixtures. It’s eerily similar to the circumstances surrounding Roy Keane’s departure from the Ireland squad ahead of the same tournament – anyone know the Slovenian for ‘stick it up your bollocks’?
Zahovic would return to the fold soon after the world cup, Katanec resigning, replaced by Matjaz Kek (some great names today). However Slovenia missed out on qualification for Euro 2004, prompting Zahovic’s retirement.
Key players include Milivoje Novakovic, former captain of the Bundesliga’s FC Koln; captain Robert Koren, West Brom midfielder; and Samir Handanovic, the 25-year-old Udinese goalkeeper who took much of the credit for the side’s excellent defensive record in qualifying.
Despite a lack of recognisable names, England will write Slovenia off at their peril. They came through a tough qualification group at the expense of the Czech Republic, undefeated at home, conceding only 4 goals along the way; the only team to concede less during qualification was the Netherlands. Their unexpected away goals playoff victory over Guus Hiddink’s Russia means they are well worth their place in the group.
They have an axe to grind with England following the award of a highly dubious penalty during a friendly at Wembley in September 2009 that England won 2-1. Revenge was clearly the first thing on Slovenian minds when the World Cup draw was made: Bostjan Cesar, the defender who conceded the penalty, said: “Everybody knows that Rooney deliberately tried to injure me. He should be ashamed of himself. We will try to wind him up and make it an unpleasant experience for him and his team-mates.”
While the notion that Rooney is easily wound up in big games is hopefully an outdated one, I found a couple of quotes that might hit a bit closer to home. Midfielder Valter Birsa sounded a note of caution against complacency, saying: “We were completely equal to them until the referee decided to gift them a penalty kick. I hope they will underestimate us. That’s what the Russians did and look at them now.”
It is Zahovic, though, who has identified England’s recent weakness in tournaments, and one we can only hope Capello’s disciplinarian streak has already dealt with. “For me England are not one of the favourites,” he said. “They are a team full of stars and egos. They cannot possibly spend a month and a half together without friction.”