Having last graced football’s showpiece event at Korea/Japan 2002, Slovenia are now within 180 minutes of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. On 14 and 18 November, coach Matjaz Kek’s team take on the UEFA EURO 2008 semi-finalists Russia in the region’s play-offs, with a berth in South Africa up for grabs.
Ahead of the imminent tests in Moscow and Maribor, FIFA.com spoke to Slovenia‘s star striker, Milivoje Novakovic, currently on the books of FC Koln.
In this exclusive interview, the team’s vice captain and leading scorer in the current qualifying campaign spoke about his role in the national team, upcoming opponents Russia and his side’s chances of reaching South Africa 2010.
FIFA.com: Slovenia are on the verge of reaching only their second FIFA World Cup finals. Where were you during their maiden appearance in 2002 and what are your expectations of the upcoming play-offs?
Milivoje Novakovic: I was only starting out back then and that was a different era. This is my time now and Slovenia are on the brink of something big. We’ve done exceptionally well with this team so far, and we believe we can go to South Africa even though Russia are clear favourites.
What did it mean to your country back then to participate in a major tournament like the FIFA World Cup?
For a small country like ours, it’s an incredible achievement to qualify for a World Cup. We haven’t managed it again over the last eight years and, before this qualification series started, nobody was giving this young team a hope. But now, the players and the whole country are proud of our success. We want to show that, small as we are, we can compete with the best.
The national team doesn’t have any players at the big European clubs, so how would you explain your success?
The atmosphere within our squad is really good and we play for each other and support each other. The younger players know each other from the underage categories and youth teams and the experienced guys are prepared to help out whenever they can. The quality of the team is improving all the time. We’ve been working hard for three whole years to get to where we are now.
We’re definitely the underdogs and it will be tough, but after our outstanding campaign so far, we’re ready to go for it now and finish the job.
You’ve played in all ten qualification games so far, scored the most goals and, after goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, have accumulated the most playing time. Is that a reflection of your worth to the national side?
The backbone of our team is made up of Samir, captain Robert Koren and myself. The younger players respect our roles and this is a major part of our success. I’m the elder statesman despite being just 30, so I’m happy to accept responsibility. However, every player who pulls on the shirt is prepared to stand up and be counted.
And how much of your recent success is down to national coach Matjaz Kek?
Mr. Kek is well known internationally now because of his success with us. He was a player himself so 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.
Are you happy to have claimed a play-off spot behind Slovakia or are you disappointed to have missed out on direct qualification to the finals?
I feel we were unlucky to miss out on first place in the group and were the most consistent team. Maybe we had too much respect for the Czechs and the Poles. Of course, we’re disappointed, but if you’d offered us 20 points in this group at the start of the campaign, we’d have taken it. We have a realistic chance now and we intend to take advantage of it.
How would you rate your opponents Russia?
To be honest, we’d prefer to have drawn Greece but it could have been worse. We’re happy to have avoided France and Portugal, even though nobody’s unbeatable nowadays. We’re definitely the underdogs and it will be tough, but after our outstanding campaign so far, we’re ready to go for it now and finish the job.
With only four goals conceded, Slovenia’s was the meanest defence in the European zone after the Netherlands (who played two games fewer). Is your defence the key to success against the Russians?
Yes, sure, our rearguard is very strong, but defending starts with us up front. Our system is based on this and that’s what we practice in training. We’ll stick to what’s worked so far and see if we can upset the Russians.
What’s the main strength of this Russian team? Will you have to pay special attention to any particular players?
For me, Russia have an outstanding coach in Guus Hiddink. He’s the reason that they’re the favourites. Of course, Andrei Arshavin is a fantastic player but a lot of the credit has to go to the coach. What really counts is the team performance and I think we’re ahead on that score.
Would playing at South Africa 2010 be the highlight of your professional career?
Yes, that would definitely be a huge boost for me. That’s my goal and I’ll be doing everything I can to achieve it.