According to the dictionary, a supernova is a stellar explosion which can briefly outshine an entire galaxy and drives a powerful shock wave into the surrounding medium before fading from view. Metaphorically speaking, Slovenia have just produced the footballing equivalent, but with one critical difference: skipper Milivoje Novakovic and his men have no intention of disappearing back into the inky blackness, but rather ushering in a new era in the nation’s footballing history.
Cologne striker Novakovic neatly symbolises his country’s rapid ascent into the top echelons of the world game. The 30-year-old struck five goals as the relatively young nation of just two million inhabitants sealed their second appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, unleashing a wave of anticipation and euphoria. And to round off the analogy in the most fitting way possible, Novakovic really does go by the nickname Supernova.
Back on the footballing map
After finishing second to Slovakia in European qualifying Group 3, but ahead of pre-qualifying favourites Poland and the Czech Republic, the team coached by Matjaz Kek went into the 2010 FIFA World Cup play-offs against Russia as rank outsiders, but won the two-legged tie on away goals to book a place in South Africa. Surprise and admiration reverberated round the footballing globe as Slovenia’s second finals appearance following their debut in 2002 became a reality. "I think the footballing world knows where our country is by now," Novakovic declared.
Slovenia lost the first leg 2-1 in Moscow, but the 88th-minute goal scored by Nejc Pecnik of Portuguese top flight outfit Nacional Funchal always looked worth its weight in gold. At home in Maribor, Bochum hitman Zlatko Dedic struck the only goal of the game to send Andrei Arshavin and his team-mates tumbling out of contention. The remarkable result meant not only a ticket to the greatest sporting tournament on the planet, it established Slovenia among the world elite once and for all.
The pride and the passion
A glance at the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking underlines the point. Slovenia have added an impressive 93 points and climbed fully 16 rungs up the ladder. Novakovic and Co now lie 33rd, their best placing since January 2004, when they were two spots higher. They have overtaken the likes of Ghana, Turkey, Sweden and Japan, and appear poised not only to recapture the glory years before and after the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but to turn the page on a new and potentially even more successful chapter.
There is still a little way to go before Slovenia emulate their best-ever 25th spot from December 2001 and May 2002, but the shared passion and enthusiasm shown by the current squad and their fans bears the hallmark of a top-class generation in the making. Novakovic said as much in an exclusive FIFA.com interview: "For a small country like ours, it’s an incredible achievement to qualify for a World Cup. We haven’t managed it again over the last eight years and, before this qualification series started, nobody was giving this young team a hope. But now, the players and the whole country are proud of our success.”
Secret in the blend
Slovenia’s eager youngsters will be keen to make an impression in South Africa and register the kind of results which could see them take another leap forward in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. However, coach Kek knows full well he will achieve nothing with kids, and requires the down-to-earth wisdom embodied by seasoned pro Novakovic: "The backbone of our team is made up of keeper Samir Handanovic, captain Robert Koren and myself. The younger players respect our roles and this is a major part of our success. Unbelievably, I’m the elder statesman despite being just 30, so I’m happy to accept responsibility. However, every player who pulls on the shirt is prepared to stand up and be counted."
This harmonious blend of youth and experience boasts footballing talent and a healthy dose of vigour and passion. It is an intoxicating combination which could yet earn the Slovenes the ‘surprise package’ tag at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Whatever else, Supernova and his cast of starlets will aim to improve on their country’s record at the 2002 event in Korea and Japan 2002, where they packed for home after three straight group stage defeats.