If size matters at this FIFA World Cup™, Slovenia would be as well not turning up at Ellis Park on Friday. After all, their match against USA pits South Africa 2010’s smallest nation against the competition’s colossus. Fortunately, while this tiny Balkan nation’s population is 150 times smaller than that of their Group C rivals, it is clear that, when it comes to 11 versus 11, they can slug it out with the biggest and best.
If their play-off win over Guus Hiddink’s Russia wasn’t warning enough, Slovenia reminded everyone of their capabilities by seeing off Algeria in their opening fixture at South Africa 2010. That 1-0 win - their first-ever victory at the FIFA World Cup - means that Matjaz Kek’s side go into their meeting with the Americans as Group C leaders, with midfielder Valter Birsa insisting that the pressure is off.
“After our first match, we are not so nervous anymore - all that anxiety has gone,” he told FIFA. “Now we have a very important match in front of us against a great team in the USA. But for us, it’s just a big reward to be here and playing in such an important match. We are going to do everything to enjoy it.”
It was a goal from captain Robert Koren that got Slovenia off to the perfect start in South Africa but, as in qualifying – where they conceded just four goals in ten matches – their success was built on a foundation of defensive solidity. Miso Brecko has emerged as an integral part of that miserly rearguard, and the Cologne fullback revealed that he is out to prove a point to critics in his adopted country.
He said: “I can understand it, because we are a small country with only two million people, but a lot of people in Germany thought that we would lose all three matches and go home. That’s it for them. They respect the big teams like Brazil and Italy and look down on the others.
“But we have quite a lot of experience now and can see that nobody is unbeatable. We’ve become confident in recent years, and it’s now not enough just to play well - we want some success. We all realised that we can go further.
"The atmosphere in the team is very good right now and everything is working perfectly. We respect each other, we are very good friends and we support each other. Even if someone is having a bad match, there is no problem because we all know that we are trying our best and trying to win. That’s the most important thing.”
Determined and deadly serious about making the Round of 16, Slovenia’s players have been toiling tirelessly on the training ground to ready themselves for this next, vital challenge. However, it hasn’t been all work and no play, with Kek having given the green light for a team excursion to one of South Africa’s world-renowned lion parks. With morale already high, this opportunity to sample their unique surroundings as a group merely strengthened Slovenian solidarity.
As centre-half Matej Mavric told FIFA: “The landscape was so beautiful, as well as the park, and I saw that everybody was having lots of fun. I was really happy to see that. I’m not counting, but it had been a while since we had a day off and we definitely deserved an afternoon off. We had a good training session in the morning and we will keep doing a good job. I just hope that the results will be perfect and that we will leave an unforgettable impression."
Qualifying was an achievement in itself; their first-ever win a historic feat. Now, with expectations surpassed and nothing left to prove, Slovenia can savour every second of their South African adventure.