If there is a reluctance from the West Bromwich Albion midfielder and others within the Zmajceki squad to accept top billing, a look at their last FIFA World Cup™ appearance explains why. Three straight defeats were the legacy of a demoralising 2002 campaign best remembered for a bitter fall-out between the team’s coach, Srecko Katanec, and its poster boy, Zlatko Zahovic.
“Zahovic was our big star, our only star, in 2002,” Koren told FIFA.com. “But there were big problems in the squad at that tournament. Things are different now.”
Indeed, mindful of the damage wreaked by ego-fuelled divisions in the Far East, Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek has made unity, industry and harmony the cornerstones of his new-look team. And, in Koren, he selected a captain who epitomises these values. The result is that this tiny nation of just two million people is once again preparing to compete on the game’s biggest stage, with stars conspicuous by their absence.
“We don’t have any big-name players but we do have a great spirit in the team and I think that will be our biggest strength,” said Koren. “Off the field, we are all good friends, and I think you see that on the field too. We communicate very well, and that has helped to make us a very well-organised team. As players, we respect each other’s abilities, we trust in each other, and I think that was what got us through against teams like Russia during qualifying.”
That memorable and wholly unexpected play-off victory over Guus Hiddink’s Russians was the undoubted high-point of Kek’s three-year reign, and completed a remarkable transformation in fortunes. After all, this was a coach whose tenure had begun with three defeats and a draw en route to finishing below the likes of Albania and Belarus in qualifying for UEFA EURO 2008. Ridiculed and lambasted at the time, Kek is now a national hero, and Koren insists that he is worthy of every word of praise.
“The coach has done a great job,” said the Slovenia skipper. “It’s true he had some problems in the beginning because he came from managing a club team in the Slovenian league (Maribor), and the transition to international football was quite tough. The biggest difference from those days is that he now concentrates a lot less on training us physically and more on building us as a team. That’s been an important change, the balance is right now, and the coach did well in listening to his players in that respect.
“He also had to bring in a new generation of players when he first started, and that was difficult, but recently we’ve had a lot of stability within the squad. The training is good and is well suited to international football, and we all know each other very well now because the squad has remained more or less the same for quite some time. The coach also does a good job in analysing other teams and that was a big positive for us during qualifying. He definitely deserves a lot of credit for what we have achieved.”
Koren himself comes into the FIFA World Cup high in confidence after a season in which he helped his club side return to the English Premier League at the first time of asking. With Slovenia having landed in England’s group along with USA and Algeria, the Baggies midfielder has also found himself thrust into the media spotlight, spending hours upon hours educating his adopted country’s press about their unknown European rivals.
“A lot of attention has been on me since the draw was made, but it hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “I have never done so many interviews in all my life but, honestly, I am always happy to represent Slovenia and speak about my country. I’m happy that us being in the World Cup means that people will read more and know more about Slovenia, and hopefully we can do our country proud in South Africa too.
“Saying that, I really don’t think we have anything to prove about our qualities as a team at this stage. We showed everyone what we can do during qualifying, and I don’t think anyone should underestimate us. We are a good side, the fact we’re up to 23 in the FIFA Ranking shows that, and we’re all confident of doing well in South Africa. We’ve reached our goal by qualifying, but our job is not done yet.
“We want to get through from the group stage if we can, and I believe we are good enough to do that. I’m sure we will enjoy it whatever happens. The World Cup is the biggest tournament in football and, as players, we have to appreciate and make the most of this opportunity. It’s something special for us and we will go there to enjoy it and make our country proud.”
If Slovenia can cause an upset or two along the way, Koren and his colleagues are sure to return home as heroes and, no matter how much they might protest, bona fide stars.