Slovenia’s captain and midfield fulcrum, Robert Koren will be at the heart of Matjaz Kek’s plans for South Africa 2010. The 29-year-old is the current squad’s most-capped player and could reach a half-century of international appearances depending on his and Slovenia’s fortunes at the global showpiece.
An intelligent and technically gifted midfielder, Koren has spent the last four seasons with West Bromwich Albion, a club that has yo-yoed between England’s top and second tier. He has established himself as a key player at the Hawthorns and, last season, made more appearances than any other outfield player as the team dropped out of the Premier League despite impressing with their expansive style of play. This season has actually proved to be his most difficult yet, as strained relations with the Baggies’ latest manager, Roberto di Matteo, led to talk of a January move to suitors such as Fulham, Celtic and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and to spells out of the starting line-up.
Koren stayed put, however, and has added some spectacular goals to his customarily composed midfield play in West Brom’s push for an immediate return to the Premier League. The midfielder, who feared losing his sight after a freak training ground injury in 2007, has also had fresh injury problems to contend with of late, with a hernia operation forcing him out for a month late last year.
However, Koren has a huge admirer in Kek, who recognised his influence on and off the field by handing him the captain’s armband ahead of Slovenia’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign in 2008. Tony Mowbray, the manager who brought Koren to English football, saw the wisdom in this decision. "Robert epitomises what a good pro is,” said the former West Bromwich Albion boss. "He trains how you want him to play. Whatever role you ask him to perform, he applies himself 100 per cent."
Versatility is another of Koren’s attributes, and while Kek has tended to field him in a central role, he has proved at club level that he can excel in a variety of positions across the midfield. The Slovenia captain certainly justified his coach’s faith during the South Africa 2010 preliminaries, leading the side through a tough section and onwards to a triumphant play-off win over the mighty Russians.
Koren’s belief that the team should be the star fits perfectly with the philosophy that has proved so successful for Kek’s side, and he will be happy to play an understated but efficient role in any Slovenian success in South Africa. Though often likened to his former idol Zlatko Zahovic, Koren has a very different personality to the gifted but volatile star whose walkout in 2002 capped a miserable debut FIFA World Cup for Slovenia.
Diligent professionalism and commitment are a given with the Slovenia captain, who has proved a loyal and dependable player for several of the game’s less glamorous clubs. Despite his evident talent, Koren was nearly 24 by the time he first left his homeland, having spent eight years split between two of the top flight’s lesser lights, Publikum and Dravograd.
There was also widespread surprise that his destination was Lillestrom, although the player himself, unperturbed, spent three years building a reputation as one of the Norwegian league’s outstanding talents. There was certainly plenty of interest when Koren decided to move on under freedom of contract in 2007, and while the choice of West Bromwich Albion again raised some eyebrows, the unassuming midfielder dedicated himself to the challenge of establishing the Birmingham outfit’s top flight credentials.
Accustomed to being underestimated, Koren now hopes that Slovenia’s 2010 opponents make the same mistake. “I've heard people say we're the worst European team in the competition and similar things,” he has said. “That will just spur us on even more. Believe me, we will be ready for these games.”