"Samir is one of the most important players in our team," Slovenia boss Matjaz Kek recently told FIFA.com. This brief but punchy statement underlines the significance of the role played by keeper Samir Handanovic as the Zmajceki gear up for their second appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ finals.
Since his debut in a goalless draw with Slovakia in November 2004, the 1.92m shot-stopper has generally been one of the first names on the Slovenian team-sheet. Handanovic made a total of four appearances in qualifying for the last global showdown in Germany four years ago, but was unable to prevent his team from missing out on the finals.
Handanovic now boasts a total of 38 caps and will shoulder a high level of responsibility when Slovenia take on Group C opponents England, USA and Algeria. "I think there’s a spine running down our team, comprising our keeper Samir Handanovic, captain Robert Koren and me," Slovenia striker Milivoje Novakovic explained to FIFA.com last November.
Handanovic, born in Ljubljana 25 years ago, learned his trade with NK Domzale. He was still with his local club in 2003/04 when he received a first taste of life in the Slovenian top flight.
The then 19-year-old’s potential was clear for all to see, and scouts from around Europe were soon checking on the young keeper’s form. The winners in the race for Handanovic’s signature were Serie A outfit Udinese, although the Italians then opted to loan their new acquisition to Treviso and Lazio, where his opportunities for match practice proved limited.
Handanovic finally made the breakthrough in 2006/07 while out on another loan spell, this time as a first-choice keeper in Serie B with Rimini. The Slovenia international helped the men from the Adriatic coast reach fifth spot in the final standings, and played a key role in Rimini ending the campaign with the fourth-best defence in the league.
Udinese were impressed enough with their young goalkeeper’s progress to offer him a new contract in summer 2007 and install him as successor to former first-choice keeper Morgan De Sanctis. Handanovic duly inked the new and improved deal, binding him to the Italian club until 2012, and has been undisputed number one for I Bianconeri ever since.
Handanovic and company finished a creditable seventh in the Italian top flight twice in a row, but last season proved problematic and the club was involved in a relegation dogfight for most of the campaign, before finally finishing a disappointing 15th. The Slovenia star has made a total of 109 appearances for his club so far and looks set to add many more outings for the team coached by Pasquale Marino.
The same situation now applies to the 25-year-old and his national team. In qualifying for South Africa 2010, Handanovic conceded just six goals in 12 games and was the shining star of the play-off against Russia, where Slovenia sealed a return to the global showdown after a maiden appearance in 2002.
Keep it in the family
And there must be something about the Handanovic family when it comes to keeping goal. His older cousin Jasmin, 32, is also a member of Slovenia’s squad for South Africa and, having made two qualifying appearances, is rated as Samir's closest challenger for the No1 shirt.
However, as Kek explained to FIFA.com, there is no doubt over the pecking order. "Aleksander Seliga (Slovenia's third-choice keeper) and Jasmin are both really good goalkeepers, but the No1 gloves already have their owner. I am happy that we have three goalkeepers of such quality, but I am of opinion that we have one currently of the best goalkeepers in Europe in Samir Handanovic."
Handanovic Jnr will doubtless do his utmost to prove his coach right when he and his team-mates step up to the plate in South Africa. Slovenia start as underdogs, but it is a position they appear to relish, after outstripping the Czech Republic and Poland in qualifying and then overcoming the odds to edge out the Russians in the play-offs.