Slovenia and Cologne hitman Milivoje Novakovic has roared off the blocks after the German winter break, netting three goals in the first two Bundesliga fixtures of the new year to earn his promoted club two valuable draws. However, the 29-year-old is not the kind of character to be anywhere near satisfied with his or his team’s performances.
Clad in training gear and a woolly hat, he cut a relaxed figure when he arrived for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com , but the outward appearance belies his focused and explosive approach on the field of play. After spells in Austria and Bulgaria, the man nicknamed Nova switched to then second division Cologne in the summer of 2006, finishing with ten goals in his first season in Germany. He doubled that total the following year, topping the second division scoring charts as Cologne marched to promotion. Slovenia’s Player of the Year for 2008 has already notched 12 goals in 18 Bundesliga appearances so far this term.
The Cologne crowd hero is enjoying a productive run for his country too. In 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, Slovenia currently lie fourth in their group, but are just two points off first place and a guaranteed spot at the global showdown in a very evenly-matched section. Novakovic has contributed three of his country’s five qualifying goals to date.
The striker spoke to FIFA.com about the qualifying campaign, a rush of enthusiasm for the game in his home country, and the impending return of local idol Lukas Podolski to Cologne.
FIFA.com: Milivoje Novakovic, in qualifying for South Africa 2010, Slovenia currently occupy a respectable fourth place in European Group 3. How would you evaluate the situation after four matches?
Milivoje Novakovic: We have to be pleased, but whatever you do in life, you can never rest on your laurels. You have to keep working on yourself. We have a young team and we definitely need a little more time. But we’re a good group, and that’s why we’ve succeeded so far. The critical games are our home meetings with the Czech Republic and Poland. If we win those, we’d be in a great position to qualify.
How would you rate your group opponents Czech Republic, Poland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and San Marino?
I think Poland and Slovakia have been most impressive so far. We were unlucky to lose away to the Czechs. It’ll be a tough campaign, and we’re focusing all our efforts on winning our home games.
Slovenia’s last FIFA World Cup finals appearance was at Korea/Japan 2002. What do you remember about that?
I followed the tournament, as I do with every major event. There was real euphoria in Slovenia at the time, although standards in the Slovenian game have unfortunately slipped in recent years. But there’s a new and growing enthusiasm again, and I think our young team could get somewhere in the future.
Can Slovenia qualify for the 2010 finals?
I wouldn’t bother playing if we couldn’t. I’m an optimist and I always look forward. I’ve never played at the World Cup, and I’ll give everything to help my country qualify for South Africa.
You’ve made a major contribution in qualifying with three goals in four matches. How do you regard your role in the national team?
Obviously, players with overseas experience have an advantage, but we know we’ll only get anywhere as a team. Fourteen of the squad played in the U-21s, but they’re relatively young and lacking in experience. But they listen hard to what we have to say, and they understand the only way we’ll achieve anything is as a unit.
What would qualifying for South Africa mean for the Slovenian game?
It would mean a great deal. The whole world watches the World Cup. It would be a huge honour to represent my country at the World Cup. You can be proud of yourself and your country if you achieve something like that. We have a good chance, and we intend to take it.
This is your maiden Bundesliga campaign with Cologne, and you have 12 goals to your name. Are you happy with your performance so far?
I’m never satisfied, but the first half of the season was OK. The rest of the campaign will definitely be more difficult. We need points as fast as possible to keep ourselves clear of the relegation zone. We want to secure our place in the Bundesliga for next season as soon as we can. Once we’ve done that, we can start setting our sights higher.
The city has been abuzz with just one subject recently, the return of Germany international Lukas Podolski [from Bayern Munich next summer]. How has the dressing room reacted to the news?
Obviously the players have talked about it, and it’s totally positive. We’re really looking forward to Lukas Podolski’s arrival in the summer. Compliments to the board on finding a way of bringing him back. Now the onus is on the team. We need to play well in the second half of the season and ensure we avoid relegation. We’ll do it for him and for our fans.
What impresses you most about Cologne?
It’s a wonderful city, and the fans are just unbelievable here. The players, the coaching staff and the board work together perfectly.