In early June in Reykjavik, it seemed that Slovenia had waved goodbye to their chances of reaching a second consecutive FIFA World Cup™ finals. They were 2-1 down to Iceland, with just half an hour played and, with only one victory in their opening five matches – the visiting Slovenian fans were in gloomy spirits.
Then, a quite brilliant turnaround from the Slovenians saw them equalise in the first half, before soaking up pressure and hitting their Nordic hosts on the counter-attack with two decisive second half goals by Bostjan Cesar and Rene Krhin to win 4-2. The World Cup dream was back on for Srecko Katanec and his side, although it remained a faint glimmer of hope with just six points from six games.
Last month, Katanec guided his team to two further victories which put his squad firmly back in contention for a play-off place in European Group E. Those wins over Albania and Cyprus saw Slovenia jump 16 places to 29th in the September edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, one of the best performances in Europe.
Katanec himself has returned to the coaching role after a successful, but turbulent, time in charge in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He guided the nation to UEFA EURO 2000 and the World Cup in 2002. His famous fall-out with star player Zlatko Zahovic led to Slovenia’s all-time leading goalscorer being sent home from Japan and Korea, and Slovenia slumped to defeat in all three of their group fixtures.
The next generation
That so-called ‘golden generation’ has since retired and Katanec can now count on a couple of fresh-faced star players in his current crop. One of the reasons for the Slovenian’s recent upturns in fortunes has been their solid defence, with Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic marshalling the back-line. Since that turnaround in Reykjavik, Handanovic has not conceded in over four hours of World Cup qualifying. The Inter stopper was particularly impressive in the side’s outing against Albania, with a number of world class saves denying the side who Slovenia leapfrogged with their hard-earned 1-0 win.
“We have two excellent ‘keepers,” coach Katanec was quoted as saying by FC Inter News. “One, Handanovic, is certainly the best in the world.”
The solitary strike that earned the victory against Kuq e Zinjte was a first international goal for Kevin Kampl, a stunning curling effort from outside the box. The midfielder has an interesting back-story too. Born in Germany to Slovenian parents, the young midfielder was invited to play for the country of his birth after a dispute with a Slovenian youth coach, but he turned down the German advances.
A change in coaching personnel saw the youngster called up to the Slovenia U-21 side and he received his first international cap in 2012. Slovenia supporters will be hoping the 22-year-old with the eye-catching hair can have a hand in more fantastic goals to see his side have a chance of reaching Brazil.
Down to the wire
Indeed, Slovenia’s is an incredibly tight World Cup qualifying group, with five of the six teams involved still able to reach the finals next summer. Katanec’s side host Norway next week, who are one point behind Handanovic and co, before travelling to Bern for a showdown with group leaders Switzerland. The Swiss may have already assured themselves of a place at next summer’s festival of football by the time the pair meet, but Katanec will certainly not be taking anything for granted.
Slovenia reached South Africa by knocking out much-fancied Russia in the play-offs on away goals and, if Katanec’s squad was to reach the play-offs this time out, they would certainly be among the dark horses for qualification.
Their highest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was 15th, coming on the back of their steady performance at the World Cup in South Africa. Katanec and his charges will be dreaming of qualifying for next summer’s finals, and – for a side that sank to 56th as recently as March this year - another high ranking would be sure to follow.