Disappointment engraved on their faces, their heads down, Slovenia's players, coaching staff and officials trooped out of the empty Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday evening. Despite losing 1-0 in their final group match against England, the European minnows were just two minutes away from qualification for the knockout stages when Landon Donovan's stoppage-time winner for USA against Algeria brought the dream to a shattering end.
"I can't describe what it feels like," said coach Matjaz Kek, visibly shocked by his side's exit from the FIFA World Cup™ just when progress to the Round of 16 seemed close enough to touch. "When I heard that the USA had scored, I was absolutely dumbstruck." The Slovenia coach, who believed his team had qualified when the final whistle blew against England, added: "But that's the way it is in sport. You can't legislate for these things."
A draw between USA and Algeria would have been enough for Slovenia to reach the last 16 on just their second appearance on the world stage, rather than repeat their group stage exit of 2002. Team captain Robert Koren also found himself struggling for words at the outcome after his side's determined performance against one of the pre-tournament favourites. He said: "We gave everything against a world-class team like England and fought to the very end."
Certainly the Slovenians' early exit was not down to any lack of commitment. If anything it owed something to their lack of experience at big tournaments that they failed to capitalise on highly promising performances – notably in letting slip a 2-0 half-time lead over USA in their second group game as the Americans came back to draw 2-2.
"We are a young team, and I'm sure we'll quickly move on from this setback," said defender Marko Suler, noting that the bulk of the squad are 26 or younger and that many have been playing together since Under-15 level. For a country of just two million people, this represents a bright hope for the future. "Surely there will be more big tournaments ahead for this group of players, and our experience here will be invaluable down the line," Suler added.
The 48-year-old Kek, who took over the team in 2007 and led Slovenia to South Africa via a play-off victory over Russia, agrees. "Obviously we're disappointed but I hope my players can focus on the positive things they have achieved. During this tournament we have earned a great deal of respect." And Kek is hoping the current generation of Slovenian internationals will serve as an inspiration to future generations too.
"They are coming on very quickly and soon will be in the position to deliver to their full potential,” he said, noting that expectations back home have been raised by the performance of the team in South Africa. "We have got massive potential here and it's now down to us to fulfil it. We'll be back. The important thing now is not to be dispirited about going out. This generation can only get better."