Slovenia take pride in being a team without stars, but it is no accident that Milivoje Novakovic has been widely pinpointed as the Zmajceki's principal dangerman. Only goalkeeper Samir Handanovic spent more time on the field during the team's fairy tale run to South Africa 2010, and Novakovic justified his position by averaging a goal every two games during Slovenia's group campaign, ending the preliminaries joint-third on his country's list of all-time goalscorers.
In fact, the 30-year-old needs only three more goals to move in behind Zlatko Zahovic as the second-highest goalscorer in Slovenia's history. This is despite the fact that Novakovic is something of a late bloomer, with his first involvement with the national squad having come as recently as 2006, by which time he was approaching his 27th birthday. It had taken years of unheralded toil with Olimpija Ljubljana and then in Austria's lower leagues to get him to this point but, fortunately for Novakovic, better still was to follow.
Just three months after making his Slovenia debut in a 1-0 friendly win over Cyprus, the big striker marked his third cap by grabbing a hat-trick as a FIFA World Cup™-bound Trinidad and Tobago side were put to the sword 3-1. By this stage, his club career was also beginning to take off, with unspectacular spells at SV Mattersburg and LASK Linz in Austria having been followed by a goal-laden stint in Bulgaria with Litex Lovech.
In his debut season in the Bulgarian top flight, Novakovic finished top scorer with 16 goals from just 24 appearances. Inevitably, this kind of prolificacy attracted attention, and in August 2006 Cologne parted with €1.5 million to take him to Germany. Hopes were high that this tall Slovenian would be the man to fire Die Geißböcke (The Billy Goats) back to the Bundesliga, but initial impressions were not wholly positive, as Novakovic failed to find the target in each of his first five games.
Ultimately, he won over some of his critics by reaching double figures in his first season, but this was to prove merely a taster for what was to follow. The following campaign, Novakovic played like a man possessed, topping the scoring charts once again with 20 goals in 31 appearances as Cologne returned to the top flight by finishing third. The Bundesliga offered an altogether stiffer test, of course, but Novakovic – already a firm fan favourite – proved more than equal to the challenge, averaging better than a goal every two matches with 16 from his 30 appearances.
By this stage, Novakovic was a Cologne legend; indeed, he had been made captain just a month into the season by the club's then coach, Christophe Daum. Yet although the arrival of Lukasz Podolski was seen to offer a marriage made in heaven, Novakovic appeared to grow distracted by speculation of €8 million bids from the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk, Portsmouth and CSKA Moscow. The striker had also been impressing for Slovenia, scoring vital goals against the likes of Slovakia and Nothern Ireland, and his refusal to return early from his country's post-qualification party led to him being stripped of the Cologne captaincy by current boss Zvnonimir Soldo.
The partnership with Podolski hasn't produced the desired results either, with the German international struggling badly for goals and Novakovic also failing to match the standards set during his remarkable debut season in Germany's top flight. However, while his future at club level may be in doubt, his status with the national team is beyond question. Novakovic is the focal point of Slovenia's attack, and while undoubtedly a threat in the air at 6ft 4ins, his intelligence and subtlety of touch means that he is far more than a mere target-man.
He is also aware of his own importance to the Zmajceki cause. As he told FIFA.com: "The backbone of our team is made up of Samir (Handanovic), captain Robert Koren and myself... I'm the elder statesman despite being just 30, so I'm happy to accept responsibility."
Idolised by a nation, respected by his team-mates and treasured by his manager, Novakovic could well be the star to light up Slovenia's FIFA World Cup.