Training has been over for a quarter of an hour and, when he shakes hands, Zlatan Ljubijankic flashes the same smile he was wearing 15 minutes ago. As promised, he has brought his friend Marko Suler with him into Belgian side Gent's refurbished training complex and, affable and relaxed, the two team-mates and Slovenia internationals have time to chat. FIFA.com took the opportunity to speak to them about their side's play-off for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
"Slovakia deserved to qualify," said Ljubijankic, a forward and voted best player in the Slovenian championship in 2007 before he left Domzale for Gent in January 2008. "They won the matches they had to and we didn't. Yes, we beat them twice but we dropped precious points in Northern Ireland and twice against the Czech Republic."
The five points squandered against the Czechs still rankle with Suler too. "We respected them too much and, on top of that, we played them at a bad time because of certain injuries," said the defender, who alongside former Marseille centre-back Bostjan Cesar has helped Gent concede just four goals in ten outings this term. "If we played them now, there's no doubt we'd beat them," added Zlatan.
Since losing 1-0 in Belfast, Slovenia have put together a run of four consecutive triumphs, scoring 13 unanswered goals during that time. That form has rightly boosted their belief as they gear up for next month's play-off with Guus Hiddink's Russia. "It's very important to go into those matches full of confidence, especially as our squad is very strong mentally," explained Suler.
Russia have a superb coach, as well as players who play for big clubs. They're the favourites, but anything is possible.
"Russia are experienced and have a superb coach used to competing at the very highest level, as well as players who play for big clubs. They're the favourites, obviously, but we saw during the qualifiers that anything is possible in Europe nowadays."
Ljubijankic continued: "We don't have their experience, but we'll make up for that with our motivation. We're in good shape, the squad is coming together after two years of work and the public are completely behind us. We wanted above all to avoid France and Portugal, so we've done that. Now it's up to us to play."
And what of the harsh conditions they can expect to face in Moscow on 14 November? "Over there, they'll have the advantage of knowing the pitch and the weather," said Suler. "They're used to the cold. That's going to play in their favour but we'll adapt to whatever awaits us."
The calmness of the Gent duo reflects the attitude of the Slovenia squad as a whole, which to a large extent was moulded out of the country's old U-21 side. "We don't have any stars," said Ljubijankic. "Our biggest strength is our team spirit. Nobody plays for himself and the atmosphere we've got in the squad is a great quality to have. We're all proud of wearing this shirt with a common goal of qualifying."
Our biggest strength is our team spirit. We're all proud of wearing this shirt with a common goal of qualify.
"The players listen to both [Milivoje] Novakovic and Robert Koren, our captain, but we don't have a natural leader and it's not a problem," added Suler. "Two years ago, a new era was starting, with a new generation. This team is young, we still have a lot of potential to improve even more and we've already learnt a lot. The spirit in the national team is quite simply great. We're the first generation to graduate from the Slovenian rather than the Yugoslavian system and that makes us very proud."
Indeed, Suler's one major concern seems to be living up to his own high personal standards. "I'm never happy with myself," he said, before his compatriot joked: "I can vouch for that."
The pair see the play-offs with Russia as "the two most important matches" of their careers. "We're dreaming of the World Cup but it'll only become real afterwards, whether we make it or not," said Suler. "Right now, we don't realise what's at stake."
The players may not be aware how close they are but their fans certainly are, and they are hoping Ljubijankic, Suler and Co can book Slovenia a place at a tournament they last graced in 2002.