Matjaz Kek is an unlikely Slovenian hero. Unlikely because, when he was first appointed in 2007, it was to widespread condemnation, with critics questioning this reserved character’s credentials to succeed the more charismatic Brane Oblak. Kek, these detractors eagerly pointed out, had won just a solitary cap during an unspectacular playing career and achieved little more as a coach, earning the sack from Maribor just a year earlier.
When his reign began badly, with three defeats and a draw in his first four competitive games, criticism turned to derision, as fans labelled him ‘Kekec’, a term for a naive fool in Slovenian slang. Yet Kek was anything but naive. A thoughtful tactician, he was instigating a change from Slovenia’s traditional 3-4-1-2 formation to a more compact, disciplined 4-4-2, and these early setbacks did not dissuade him from this course.
With Slovenia’s UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying campaign already a write-off, Kek began planning for the FIFA World Cup preliminaries, overhauling the squad, honing a neat passing style and shaping a defence that would become the foundation for his side’s success. Then, when the action finally got underway in a qualifying section that Czech Republic and Poland were expected to dominate, belief was instilled by an unbeaten start that included wins over Slovakia and Nothern Ireland and a draw away to the Poles.
However, this was a Slovenia side that had finished below the likes of Belarus and Albania in their EURO qualifying section, and obituaries were already being written when they picked up just one point from their next three qualifiers. Guilty of showing the Czechs too must respect in back-to-back meetings that yielded a 1-0 defeat and a goalless draw, the Zmajceki had gone on to deliver arguably their worst performance of the campaign to lose 1-0 in Northern Ireland. But Kek was unbowed. He sat his players down in the Belfast dressing room and told them that he expected them to revive their hopes - by winning all of their next four qualifying matches.
It seemed ridiculous at the time, but Kek’s faith in his players – and himself – was to be spectacularly justified by a run that featured four straight wins, including a 3-0 victory over Poland and 2-0 triumph in Slovakia, 13 goals for and none against. The Slovaks recovered to claimed top spot and an automatic berth in South Africa, but this late surge proved sufficient to seal a play-off berth for the Zmajceki, and set up the greatest night in the history of this fledgling football nation.
Russia had barely been able to disguise their delight at the draw for the European Zone play-offs, and the confidence of Guus Hiddink’s side appeared well founded when they raced into a 2-0 first leg lead in Moscow. By this point, however, Kek had developed a reputation for making telling substitutions, and his decision to send on Nejc Pecnik in the closing stages paid dividends inside six minutes as the Nacional forward headed home a crucial away goal. With hopes revived, Slovenia set about finishing the job in Maribor, and Zlatko Dedic’s decisive strike just before half-time sparked joyous celebrations on a night that witnessed Kek outwit the much-lauded Hiddink.
As the 48-year-old himself said afterwards: "Today's victory is not down to any individual player, but the team as a whole. We prepared thoroughly for this match and analysed the Russian style of play beforehand. I'm so pleased that we accomplished our plan."
Kek had never been able to scale such heights during a playing career that encompassed just one international appearance, this for a defender renowned more for his leadership skills rather than any great natural talent. It was in 2000, eight years after claiming this solitary cap, that Kek was given his first managerial role at Maribor, the club with which he had won three successive titles in the twilight of his playing days. Following a moderately successful six-year stint, the highlight of which was winning the title in his debut season, Kek moved on to Football Association of Slovenia in 2006, initially taking charge of the national U-15 and U-16 teams. By January 2007, however, he had been promoted to the position of senior coach, and has since gone on to exceed all expectations, defying plenty of critics in the process.
Milivoje Novakovic, the team’s star striker, has been among those eager to laud Kek’s impact: “He was a player himself so he understands the game well. He’s brought in top coaches and knows what makes us players tick. His experience rubs off on the team and we just try to do what he says.” With that approach having worked remarkably well so far, Slovenia will again be looking to Kek to provide the Midas touch at South Africa 2010.