Population: 1,900,000
Area: 20,253 km²
Capital: Ljubljana
Language: Slovene

Slovenia came runners-up behind Russia in the tight UEFA group 1 edging out neighbours Yugoslavia by a single point for that much sought after play-off place. In the play-offs Slovenia beat Romania to book their first ever World Cup tickets.
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Participations: None
Best placing: None
Topscorer: None

Jun 02 - SLO v SPA  in Gwangju
Jun 08 - SLO v RSA  in Daegu
Jun 12 - SLO v PAR  in Seogwipo

Zlatko Zahovic is the undoubted star of this team. He usually operates as a link between midfield and attack in that classic No.10 role or as one of two forwards. He is an expert free-kick taker and has scored over 30 goals for his country and might be one of the stars of this World Cup.

WCA VERDICT: First round exit
Most people thought Slovenia would just make up the numbers at Euro 2000, but they grabbed points in two of their three games there. They have taken a tougher route to this World Cup than most other teams and should be able to shake up this group as well. We believe they will battle with Paraguay for that place alongside Spain, but lose out in the end. Not by much though.


by Matthew Monk

    What do you think is the fairy story of the World Cup so far? Milutinovic leading China to his fifth straight and the world's most populous nation's first appearance at the World Cup? Ecuador qualifying second in South America ahead of the mighty Brazil? Or tiny Slovenia, population less than two million, qualifying for their first World Cup after being a sovereign country for less than ten years?

    Slovenia are without doubt the success story of European football in the last five years. From being a tiny part of the Yugoslavian federation, occasionally supplying players like current national coach Srecko Katanec, they have become a tough, well run unit capable of eliminating Switzerland, Yugoslavia and (incredibly the team that so nearly beat France in early February) Romania.

    Those two playoff games should have seen an easy passage for Gheorghe Hagi's Romanians, but instead saw a Slovenian side minus its one true superstar Zlatko Zahovic win through deservedly. The second leg in Bucharest had one of the tensest finishes I have seen in a long time, as Romania threw everything forward, but the Slovenians just would not give way. But this only tells part of the story. Slovenia won because they play as a team, and although individually the component parts may not possess as much skill and talent as Portugal, France, Argentina, or even Romania, together they form a formidable unit, capable of upsetting anyone in Korea and Japan.

    Make note of that last point. Slovenia could surprise any team in the World Cup, and although they will not win the whole thing, not many teams will want to meet the Slovenes in the Second Round or quarterfinals. And their route to that stage is not impossible to imagine.

    Slovenia have been drawn into Group B along with Paraguay, South Africa, and one of the favourites for the whole competition, Spain. This is on the surface a fairly weak group - according at least to FIFA's strange ratings system. Only Spain will enter the tournament expecting to reach the last eight, and fans of the other three teams will all expect to progress from the group. That is not going to happen though. Slovenia might accompany Spain into the next stage, perhaps even as group winners. Why? Because this team is good, not good enough to win overall, but easily good enough to beat South Africa and Paraguay.

    Slovenia also possess one of Europe's most remarkable players, Zlatko Zahovic of Benfica. Zahovic first came to most people's attention at Euro 2000, where he inspired Slovenia to unprecedented success. He then moved on to play for Valencia in last season's Champions League, and went all the way to the final, although he was never a full part of the team. Following their loss to Bayern, Valencia sought out new players, for a new coach to rebuild for the future. This though does not explain why Zahovic now plays for sleeping giants, Benfica in Portugal. Benfica are a still a big team, with tens of thousands of socios, but they are no longer in the top echelon of European football. A player of the talent and stature of Zahovic deserves more. And perhaps this World Cup will be his last chance to get it. Zahovic is already 30, and may not get another chance to show his talents on a world stage. Will he make the tournament his own? Probably not, for he is no Maradona or Cruijff. However he easily has enough tricks and wile left to inspire Slovenia again this summer, and if those around him hit top form again, who knows how far they will go.

    Slovenia will go about the group stage the same way they did qualifying, playing on their role of underdog to shock unprepared teams who expected an easy night. Nonetheless, Slovenia are capable of poor performances, as their opening qualifier away to the Faroe Islands shows. Relatively coasting at 2:0 with a goal in each half, Slovenia should have easily held on for the three points that in the end would have made qualification more comfortable. However they could not do this, and two goals in the last five minutes saw one of Europe's weakest teams grab an unlikely draw. Should Slovenia make this mistake against Paraguay or South Africa, then they will get no second chance, and will be on the first plane back to Ljubljana. Rather though, I feel their performances away to Switzerland and Romania will be more indicative - solid, astute displays that belie Slovenia's status of group underdogs.

    Following victories over the Swiss and old enemies Yugoslavia, Slovenia still had to eliminate Romania, very much a European success story of the 1990s. This was thanks to Uefa's inspired system of play-offs, which enliven the qualification process no end. It also serves to remind the world that if the World Cup was truly an open competition, with qualification involving mixed groups drawn from all the confederations, Europe would provide at least 28 of the 32 qualifiers, and may well provide as many as 30! This time the play-offs saw Germany hit something like top gear by nullifying The Ukraine with ease, Belgium outplay a tired looking Czech Republic, Turkey terrify Brazil by obliterating Austria home and away, and tiny Slovenia beat the team of Moldovan, Ilie and Contra, deservedly. And of course they did this without Zahovic, getting the goals from Mladen Rudonja of Portsmouth's reserves, Milan Osterc and Mile Acimovic instead.

    So how far will Slovenia go? As a minimum standard, Slovenia should be looking at the Second Round, and given luck they can hope for a quarterfinal appearance at their first World Cup finals. In Slovenian, coach Srecko Katanec's name means 'Lucky' Katanec. If this rings true, then there may be an awful lot of happy Slovenians in June, and who knows, maybe Slovenia will be playing Italy or Croatia for a place in the semi-finals.

    Now that would be quite an achievement for a ten-year-old country of 2 million people!


    Slovenia has never participated in the World Cup before.




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