Gianluigi Buffon has hailed him as “one of the best goalkeepers in Italy”, while Slovenian fans consider him to be among the finest in the world. For Samir Handanovic, South Africa 2010 offers the chance to show the rest of planet football just why he is considered one of his position’s rising stars.
Still just 25, the Udinese No1 will arrive at the FIFA World Cup with his role as Slovenia’s undisputed first-choice keeper all but assured. That status has been earned over several years, but most notably during a South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign that witnessed Handanovic marshal, arguably, the meanest defence in the entire European Zone. A figure of three goals conceded in eight group matches tells the story of the young keeper’s preliminary heroics, which culminated in an all-important clean sheet in that memorable and decisive victory over Russia on 18 November.
Though his family are of Bosnian descent, Handanovic himself was born in Ljubljana on 14 July 1984 and took his first steps towards a professional career with Slovenian minnows Slovan Mavrica and Zagorje between 2002 and 2003. His promise already evident, the 6ft 5ins keeper was picked up by top flight outfit Domzale, but made just seven appearances for the club before Udinese swooped in the summer of 2004.
Handanovic had just turned 20, but just a few months later, on 17 November 2004, he made his international debut, keeping a clean sheet in a friendly meeting with Slovakia. It was to be a sign of things to come, although the youngster’s Udinese bow – which came only three days later – proved somewhat less straightforward, with Handanovic conceding four goals and an earning a last-minute red card as I Zebrette edged Lecce in a nine-goal thriller.
This dramatic introduction didn’t prevent him from returning to the side a few months later, but Udinese decided that he would benefit from first team football elsewhere, and so began a two-season period out on loan with Treviso, Lazio and, most successfully, Rimini. By the end of Handanovic’s stint in Serie B, Udinese had seen enough. He returned in 2007 and has been the club’s first-choice keeper ever since, with his assured performances, aerial ability and penalty-saving prowess earning him the nickname Il Portiere (The Doorman).
Handanovic, whose elder cousin, Jasmin Handanovic, acts as his understudy with the national team, will now head to the FIFA World Cup as one of Slovenia’s most important and influential players. With several major clubs reported to be monitoring his progress, it promises to be a tournament to remember for the Zmajceki No1.