When Slovenia compete at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, it will be only their second appearance at global football's top table. On their previous outing at Korea/Japan 2002, then-coach Srecko Katanec's side crashed out at the group stage after defeats by Spain, Paraguay and South Africa.
Slovenia are determined to set the record straight this time round, however, with their confidence boosted by a qualification campaign which included victories over Czech Republic and Poland, as well as UEFA EURO 2008 semi-finalists Russia in the European Zone play-offs.
"It's a great feeling to know you're going to the World Cup," centre-back Matej Mavric, 31, told FIFA.com. "For me, qualifying was my biggest achievement as a player. It was hard work. No one thought we'd do so well at the beginning of the campaign, but we saw our chance and grabbed it with both hands.
"It was very difficult right from the start, especially with the problems we were having in defence. With time, though, we improved and managed to qualify for the play-offs. Russia are a very good team with some exceptional players, but we were confident, had that bit of luck you need and managed to get there in the end. We have a very close-knit squad and everyone fights for one another. That was the basis for our success in qualifying for South Africa.
"We've only got four or five players in the squad who are over 30, so things look very positive for the future. The World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I know I'm really going to enjoy it. We want to stay in the tournament as long as possible and not have to go home after three matches - that's our main aim," added Mavric, who plays his club football with German second-tier side TuS Koblenz and appeared in three of Slovenia's ten qualifiers.
Unity the key
A tough group awaits Slovenia in South Africa, with Group C opponents England, USA and Algeria all keen to put paid to Matjaz Kek and his squad's dream in the host cities of Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Polokwane. Nevertheless, the defender, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, remains optimistic about his side's chances.
"I was very pleased when I saw the draw and I’m confident we can make it into the next round," he said. "It's going to be hard but it's definitely do-able. England are the favourites of course, but USA and Algeria are decent sides too.
"We have a good team ourselves and we can get through to the next round if we work together. We're always there for each other both on and off the pitch. That helped us a lot in qualifying and was probably the most important factor behind our success," added a man who has 32 senior international caps to his name.
Mavric's only goal so far at international level came in qualifying for Germany 2006, when he hit a decisive strike in a 2-1 victory over Moldova. Slovenia were, however, unable to reach that tournament, making this year's FIFA World Cup all the more important to their supporters.
"Qualifying for South Africa was a fantastic achievement, especially when you consider we're only a country of two million people. When I look back, more and more fans have supported us with each passing game and that's great to see. As with Korea/Japan 2002, the 2010 World Cup is going to do Slovenian football a power of good," said the former Molde, Gorica and Primorje defender.
"One year ago I wasn't even in the national team. It was a difficult time for me, but I've played my way back into contention over the past few months. I'm not a first-team regular, but we all know that a team is made up of more than just 11 players. Of course I'd love to play as much as possible, but I don't mind playing a more minor role."
For the Slovenian underdogs, it is just this kind of humility and squad spirit that could help them spring a surprise at South Africa 2010.