Slovenija / Slovenia
- Capital: Ljubljana
- Official Languages: Slovene
- Recognised Regional Languages: Italian, Hungarian
- Nicknames: n/a
- Association: Nogometna zveza Slovenije (NZS)
- FIFA Code: SVN
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Group Stage (2002, 2010)
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Euros Result (Men): Group Stage (2000)
- Best Euros Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 15th (October-November 2010)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 48th (December 2020)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 134th (December 1993)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 75th (December 2004)
- Most Capped Player: Boštjan Cesar – 101 caps
- Top Scorer: Zlatko Zahovič – 35 goals
The Republic of Slovenia (Republika Slovenija) is situated in central Europe, sandwiched between the Alps to its north and the Balkans to its south. Originally the northernmost republic of Yugoslavia, the country obtained its independence in 1991, where they became full members of both UEFA and FIFA the following year. Slovenia’s first golden generation appeared around the turn of the millennium when the Slovenian side qualified for their first major tournament as an independent country, the 2000 European Championships, by overcoming Ukraine 3-2 on aggregate in a two-legged playoff. Although they finished bottom of their group, they managed to achieve draws against Norway and an important 3-3 draw with neighbours Yugoslavia (Serbia & Montenegro). The Slovenes then followed up their Euros debut by qualifying for their first World Cup in 2002, again winning 3-2 on aggregate via the playoffs, this time against Romania. Alas their World Cup debut did not go as well as expected, losing all three of their group games to finish bottom of the group.
The Slovenian team qualified for their second World Cup in 2010, overcoming Russia on away goals in the playoffs. They were incredibly unfortunate not to progress to the Round of 16, having beaten Algeria and drawing with the United States to leave them top of the group after two games. Alas in their final match, they lost 0-1 in an unmemorable game against an uninspiring England team, and with the US beating Algeria in the other match, it meant the Slovenes subsequently finished third in the group and were eliminated. That has been their last appearance in a major tournament. They did reach the playoffs for Euro 2016 but suffered revenge by Ukraine, who beat them 1-3 on aggregate. Alas they will not be competing in this summer’s European Championships either after finishing fourth in their qualifying group (behind Poland, Austria and Macedonia), and having not progressed to the playoff phase via the UEFA Nations League system. However, they have achieved some success in the Nations League as they will be playing in the second-tier of European football in the next edition of the competition after earning promotion from Division C in the most recent Nations League campaign.
Talking about the 2002 and 2010 World Cup qualifiers, and qualifiers of the 2000 European Championships, we interviewed the excellent Richard Wilson from The History of Yugoslav Football Podcast. Richard is a football writer who is an expert on football throughout southeastern Europe, especially in Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. In addition, he is the host of The History of Yugoslav Football Podcast which steers listeners through the murky waters of Yugoslav football from the 19th century to the present day. To find their social media accounts and podcast, follow the links below:
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
For the best ever manager, there are only two names in the conversation – Srečko Katanec and Matjaž Kek. Katanec took Slovenia to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup while Kek took the side to the 2010 World Cup and has had an impressive beginning to his second spell in charge currently. The balance probably tips in favour of Kek for being the only manager to actually win a game at a major tournament and with an impressive club record at Rijeka, while Katanec’s record is spoiled a little by a lacklustre second period in charge of the nation and the issues that the team was left with on both times he left the post.
For players, outside of anyone in the current cohort, the argument generally comes down to one of three names – Brane Oblak, the first Slovenian to really star in the Yugoslavia national side in the seventies [earning 46 caps for Yugoslavia], Srečko Katanec, who was a mainstay of the Yugoslavia team in the 1980s and part of the fantastic Sampdoria side of the early 90s, and Zlatko Zahovič, who almost single-handedly fired the side to Euro 2000. Since independence, no player has had a bigger impact than Zahovič in turning Slovenia from minnows into an established international side.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
Zahovič is the biggest icon of the side – at his peak, an unstoppable force, but combined with one of football’s biggest egos. On one hand, you have the player who drove the side to their first international tournament and first World Cup, who between 1998 and 2000 was probably one of the best attacking players in the world; on the other, you have a player who fell out with multiple managers and then was thrown out of the 2002 World Cup camp after repeated disciplinary issues. Perhaps the best comparison for him is to Paul Gascoigne – the sheer talent, the controversy, the love of the social life.
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Slovenia currently?
It is a straight contest between Jan Oblak as goalkeeper and Josip Iličić in the midfield. Oblak is, of course, probably the best keeper in the world at this point in time [playing for Atlético Madrid], while Iličić has entered an ‘indian summer’ in his career both at Atalanta and for Slovenia. They serve as captain and vice captain of the side and are, by some distance, the most accomplished players available to them. Oblak stands as the most important simply by being at an age where he can hold the number one jersey and the captaincy of the side for the next 7-8 years.
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
The 2018 UEFA Nations League campaign was disastrous and it took Matjaž Kek a little time to turn things around in what was a challenging Euro 2020 group. However, come the latest group of Nations League commitments, they went unbeaten against Greece, Moldova and Kosovo, and by winning their group and, as a result, they have a decent chance of a World Cup qualifying playoff spot to look forward to should they fail to reach at least the playoffs by means of their World Cup qualifying group. There aren’t any illusions about the standard of the national team, but Kek has turned them into a very competent unit who are difficult to break down and have the pace and craft to threaten on the counter.
Q. Are there any Slovenian players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
There’s a few down the centre of the park that have a chance of coming through and making good careers for themselves – two who are being loaned out by major clubs at the moment. Central midfielder Adam Gnezda Čerin came through the Domžale youth system and is currently on loan at Rijeka from Nürnberg, and has shown himself to be very reliable in the Croatian league [the Prva Liga] this season, making his full international debut last autumn. Žan Celar moved early to Roma after scoring some spectacular goals at youth level for Slovenia and has had a very good record at Primavera (under 19s) level in Italy – on loan at Cremonese in Serie B, he has had a little trouble adjusting to the physical side of senior football but if he can make that leap, he could make a very good career for himself.
Top of the lot, though, is Benjamin Šeško. Only 17 years old but has already been given his debut at RB Salzburg after a productive spell at their farm club Liefering. He’s a tall, talented striker and the Red Bull production line has been so reliable in producing stars over the past few seasons that it’s hard not have faith that Šeško will make a fairly rapid leap into becoming one of Europe’s hottest young players.
Q. Looking at Slovenia’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
Definitely the biggest result of the national team was the Euro 2000 2-1 playoff win (3-2 on aggregate) against Ukraine to take Slovenia to their first major tournament. At that point, Ukraine were an extremely strong side boasting Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov, among others, and Slovenia were able to get past them with the most remembered moment being the winning goal in the home leg, where Mile Ačimovič scored from 45 yards – a great goal that has gone down as the symbol of a great achievement.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
All in all, perhaps the worst sustained period was the period after the Euro 2004 qualifiers with Brane Oblak in charge. While Slovenia have had sustained periods of poor results – such as just after independence and during the Tomaž Kavčič era, Oblak’s time in charge of the national team came after three qualification campaigns in a row of reaching at least the playoffs and, in the space of just two years, realigned expectations downward with a poor 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign [finishing fourth in a six team group] and opening up Euro 2008 qualification with defeats, including an embarrassing 4-2 loss to Belarus.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Slovenia national team?
Like any smaller nation, it’s all about the belief that you can and the issues when you can’t. Slovenia are never going to put together a side that could win a major tournament – football isn’t really the main sport in the country and, while the clubs in the country are well run compared to other areas in the region, the domestic scene isn’t really large enough to support a strong league and youth academies. In spite of all that, Slovenia have consistently produced at least one good player with each generation that has come through, be it Zahovič or Iličić or Oblak. Unlike a Scotland or an Austria, there’s no expectation that Slovenia should be better for historical reasons, simply that they be competitive, which makes the times when the side clicks together and progresses from being competitive to actually challenging to reach a major tournament (or even getting there) all the better. But those times don’t necessarily come around that often.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
The honest answer is not really – Slovenia isn’t a nation with a big fan culture for historical reasons and, even for big games, the national stadium of Stožice is rarely more than two-thirds full. The result is an atmosphere that is often quite sterile or is a consistent hum rather than a fully organised atmospheric experience, and that’s something it will take a long time to work on and build.
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
As a fan of strips with elements that make them different from just the normal solids/stripes, Slovenia are quite fortunate in that they almost always have had very identifiable strips with most strips carrying the three peaks motif of the Triglav mountain. The mountain itself is a national icon and even forms part of the flag. It has featured in the Nike strips for the past decade along with the Uhlsport strip at the 2002 World Cup. On personal preference, the current away strip (green, white mountain outline and blue) is probably the nicest of those Nike strips.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Slovenian national team?
Immediately, for Matjaž Kek to get a chance at the playoffs for Qatar 2022. Slovenia have a group that has a couple of challenging sides [in a group with Croatia, Slovakia, Russia, Cyprus & Malta] but is one they can get a top two spot in any qualifying group with a bit of luck. Only by getting to tournaments can football get people through the gates and make its own space in a crowded media environment, particularly when there are consistently strong performances from Slovenes in other sports such as cycling and basketball. It’s definitely a market in which football can grow, and the national team need to be at the forefront of it to turn the nation into consistent participants of major tournaments, and to change the nation into a footballing one.
A massive najlepša hvala to Richard for answering our questions on the Slovenian national team. Remember you can find their social media accounts in the links at the top of the blogpage.
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