As scorer of the goal that sunk Russia and secured a place at South Africa 2010, Zlatko Dedic is responsible for the greatest moment in Slovenia’s football history. His greatest wish, however, is to see this strike knocked off its perch. After all, so beloved is Dedic’s momentous match-winner in Slovenia that it will take something spectacular and very special indeed here in South Africa to see it replaced in the hearts of the Zmajceki fans.
Yet no matter what happens in the coming weeks, it is clear that Dedic himself will always treasure a career-defining moment that, for him at least, is frozen in time. “There was a picture taken when the ball was about a metre from my foot - and the clock says 43 minutes and 50 seconds,” he told FIFA. “I will never forget that moment. But it was something we achieved all together with the help of our coaches, our fans, all of my colleagues; we worked really, really hard for this moment. It was like the final touch that brought us to this dream championship, and I think we haven't seen the last of it yet.”
Dedic’s description of this FIFA World Cup as a 'dream' aptly sums up the fairy tale nature of their participation. Of the 32 nations represented in South Africa, Slovenia is easily the smallest – both in land mass and in population – and Matjaz Kek’s side have already punched well above their weight simply to be here. The transformation of a team that had finished below the likes of Albania and Belarus in qualifying for UEFA EURO 2008 was one of the 2010 preliminaries’ great success stories, with the play-off win over mighty Russia a fittingly fantastic conclusion. And Dedic believes the best may be yet to come.
“It was beautiful, really beautiful - every match was something special,” he reflected on the qualifying campaign. “We could all hardly wait to gather together… We believed in ourselves, we knew we had the qualities we needed, we did our best in every match and got our reward in the end. It is true that the process was difficult at times, but we kept getting better from game to game, as we showed in the final match against Russia. I think we have accomplished something really important, something really difficult, which nobody expected… Now we are all concentrating on the work in hand, and to be as prepared as possible for the upcoming matches, so we play even better than we did against the Russians. I think we are able to play better. There is more to come from us.”
Dedic, an energetic, inventive forward, is not known for being prolific, but he does have a reputation as a scorer of important goals. Aside from that memorable strike against the Russians, the 25-year-old was also on target in Slovenia’s crucial home-and-away victories over Poland, goals which helped to cement his place as Milivoje Novakovic’s first-choice strike partner. This national hero remembers well, however, that he spent nearly two-and-a-half years in international exile prior to being recalled by Kek in 2007, and admits that he owes his coach a huge debt of gratitude.
“The coach called me back in after a very long time, during which I had always hoped to be involved,” he recalled. “In the beginning it was difficult because I had to fight and work hard to get minutes on the pitch. And then it happened in the first match against Poland, when I played really well, albeit helped a great deal by my team-mates. After that, everything continued positively for me.”
For Slovenia and Dedic, the question now is whether this ascent can be maintained. Few expect to see Kek’s side progress from a section that pits them against England, USA and Algeria, but the Balkan outfit have cofounded expectations before and, according to their No14, are well capable of doing so again. “It is an extremely difficult group but we know that in the World Cup there is no such thing as an easy group. We respect every opponent but we are not afraid.”