In the realm of South Africa 2010's coaching glitterati, Matjaz Kek's name would feature some way down a list topped by the likes of Lippi, Maradona and Capello. The Slovenia coach may have performed minor miracles in ensuring a place at the FIFA World Cup™ for a nation of two million people, but he remains almost completely unknown to all but the most devoted followers of the beautiful game.
Nonetheless, while his achievements undoubtedly merit greater renown, Kek’s low profile and unassuming demeanour ensure a perfect fit with his equally unpretentious team. Slovenia have, after all, managed to sneak quietly into this FIFA World Cup without any controversy or grandiose, headline-grabbing boasts, and their coach is determined to ensure that it stays that way.
However, his shunning of a Jose Mourinho-style approach should not lead to conclusions that Kek fails to share his higher-profile counterparts’ intense hunger for success. Indeed, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, he revealed that Slovenia are targeting yet another “historic achievement”, and backed the tournament hosts to emulate his side in defying any remaining detractors.
FIFA.com: Mr Kek, your team’s qualification was one of the great triumphs of the South Africa 2010 preliminaries. What was the secret to your success?
Matjaz Kek: It was down to the amazing self-confidence, bravery and decisiveness of our team. We qualified, not because we had luck or anything like that, but simply because of our performances on the field.
Your side had a superb defensive record during qualifying. Is this collective solidity the crucial element of Slovenia’s strength?
The fact we only conceded four goals during the qualifiers certainly shows that the players fulfilled their defensive duties to the letter. But I would say that we remain first and foremost a well-organised team with an aspiration to play attacking football. After all, we scored a great number of goals in decisive matches and I think that shows the natural desire of our team is to attack.
There are no star names in your team but, in a sense, does this help the team-centred ethic you have fostered?
I actually disagree with the argument that we have no star players. In South Africa, we will have 23 star players, or a ‘star team’ in a sense that every one of our players is prepared to apply his individual skills for the collective good. For me, that's the essence of being a star.
How important is the team's achievement to Slovenia, as one of the smallest nations ever to qualify for a FIFA World Cup?
My sincere hope is that this success bolsters the development of football in Slovenia. Most Slovenian clubs are currently in a difficult situation and we need to take advantage of the opportunity that World Cup qualification presents. We have to build on what has already been achieved to give a boost to football in our country and increase the quality of our national league.
What are your own personal emotions ahead of the tournament?
I look upon it as a reward for all the work and effort that I have put into my education and coaching work, and as a big challenge that brings with it big expectations. But I only feel grateful for this reward; I do not feel any pressure or fear. It’s certain that qualifying was the biggest achievement of my professional career as well as my biggest personal challenge. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not important in this. The emphasis has to be on the team. We have a new challenge and a new task now. This is a time of tremendous motivation for us because we must prove to the world once again that we haven’t qualified for the World Cup by chance.
Do you have a realistic target for what Slovenia can achieve in South Africa?
We are capable of qualifying for the next round, but we will have to work very, very hard. All the teams in our group posses great quality and we are definitely facing some very interesting matches in South Africa.
Tell us more about your opponents in Group C, England, USA and Algeria. Do you feel the draw left you with a good chance of making the last 16?
However we look at it, we are not among the favourites in our group. But our aspiration is still to qualify for the second round. We will try to prepare ourselves to be the best we can be in all three matches and achieve the results that would take us through to the next stage. To achieve that, we have to be in optimal condition, and achieving that is our most important task at the moment.
Do you feel that Slovenia, USA and Algeria are fighting for second place or do you expect the group to be more open than that?
I think that all the matches will be very interesting, but England are definitely the group favourites, if for nothing else than their quality and tradition and everything that goes along with that. I actually feel that England are one of the favourites to win the tournament itself. But I still think the group will be pretty even and I hope that, whatever happens, Slovenia can progress and celebrate another historic achievement.
Does the fact you competed extremely well against England at Wembley last year give you confidence for facing Fabio Capello's side?
Friendlies are one thing, but matches at a World Cup are something entirely different. Playing well against England at Wembley meant a great deal for our self-confidence and was important to our performance in the Poland match immediately afterwards, when we achieved one of our most beautiful and important victories in the qualifiers. Our experience at Wembley was extremely positive and we will try to do everything to transfer that to our World Cup encounter. But the game in South Africa will be a new and different challenge.
Finally, as the first on African soil, this is a historic FIFA World Cup. What do you expect from the tournament and its hosts?
I have already made three visits to South Africa, so I have been able to see with my own eyes how much effort the hosts have put into organising it. I’m certain that, together with FIFA, South Africa will prepare this tournament to the highest possible level, and I go there expecting that Africa will present itself in all the glory, colour, beauty and kindness that the people there posses. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, especially as I will be going not just to watch, but with Slovenia actually participating in this World Cup. Many people would have thought that was impossible, but we proved otherwise. I’m sure that South Africa will also exceed people’s expectations.