Everyone knew that he had talent to burn, but somehow Valter Birsa could not seem to give his skills free rein, either for his club or his native Slovenia. Patience is a virtue however, and Auxerre’s wait has been rewarded, with Birsa proving to be the revelation of 2009/10 Ligue 1 season.
The Burgundy-based club are second in the table with four games to go, while Slovenia have also secured their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ berth. The mercurial 23-year-old attacking midfielder has become a fixture in both starting XIs thanks in no small part to the magic woven by his cultured left foot. His trademark good humour to the fore, 'Biky' spoke to FIFA.com and looked back on a season that has been as surprising as it has successful.
FIFA.com: Valter, despite the fact that you are only 23 you have achieved an incredible amount this season: second in Ligue 1 with Auxerre and part of the Slovenia team set to appear at South Africa 2010. How pleased are you with the way things have gone?
Valter Birsa: It’s obviously been a very positive time. I am delighted with the way things are going both with Auxerre and the national team, but I do also know that I still have room for improvement. I still feel full of energy and I’m going to carry on working to keep myself on top form. I’m trying to give 100 per cent every time and the way I see it, if you do that, then it always pays off in the end.
You scored plenty of goals as a striker in your first few years in Slovenia, including 27 in your second season as a pro. However, as soon as you arrived in France in 2006 you were moved back into midfield. Are you finally settling into the role?
That’s right, after two years playing up front for ND Gorica in the Slovenian league, Sochaux bought me in to play centre forward. Then they were hit by injuries and I was temporarily moved back into midfield as cover and ended up staying there. Quite honestly I’m totally happy with the way things are at Auxerre and for Slovenia. Even though I play out on the left, I still have an attacking role and that’s fine by me. I repeat, it doesn’t matter where I play out on the pitch, the main thing is that I give it my all.
Auxerre are having an excellent year. You are currently second behind Marseille and still in with a chance of winning the league. Are you and the rest of the squad excited about that possibility?
No, ever since the start of the season we have been making sure that we take each match as it comes and keep our feet on the ground. We need to stay focused as if you get all carried away you’re guaranteed to fail.
We’re all very good friends off the pitch.
Auxerre’s surprise run to the top of the table seems to be quite similar to Slovenia’s qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010.
Yes, it’s true that the two teams have probably gone further than people originally expected. Slovenia is a small country and it was seen as a surprise that we qualified. Auxerre are the same. It’s true that at the start of the season, people didn’t expect us to do this well, but as the season went on, both Auxerre and Slovenia got on a good run. With hindsight, I think though that we deserve to be where we are, both at the top of Ligue 1 and at the World Cup.
When you were 18, you became the youngest person ever to play for Slovenia. Did you feel that this brought with it a certain level of expectation?
No, I don’t feel any particular pressure from this. I see it more as a gift or an honour. And when you’re young, people tend to forgive your mistakes a little more easily! My aim is always to fit into the way the Slovenia team is playing and give it my all. That’s the only way that I have found to repay the confidence people have shown in me.
You scored your first goal for Slovenia last September against Poland. How did you feel when the ball went in?
It was a relief, I can tell you! I got into the squad at a time when the team was going through a bit of a rough patch and couldn’t get into a rhythm, so that didn’t exactly increase my chances of scoring. Then the team finally started to get into a groove, and then we played Poland last September, and to top it off I managed to score. Then helped me to relax and I feel like I’ve been playing better since then.
Slovenia had a really impressive qualifying campaign, but was it a surprise or rooted in logic? Did you ever doubt the team would not make it?
I have to admit that we weren’t that confident to begin with. And then we started winning matches and the points and the victories all started adding up. We had the confidence we needed and that really helped us when we played Slovakia twice who were top of our group, and in particular when we faced Russia in the play-offs. At the end of the day, we showed a lot of courage and we got our reward, qualifying for the tournament and genuinely deserving it.
So now you’ve qualified. What happens next?
All we can do now is carry on giving our all and fighting for every ball, like we have up until now. We have three matches against big teams, but the aim is to pick up as many points as possible and to finish ahead of them. After that, we’ll see.
What will be Slovenia’s strengths in this respect?
The fact that the group is such a closely knit one. We’re all very good friends off the pitch, most of us have been close for a long time after playing together in junior and youth teams. I think that this is what could help us make the difference again.
You shot to prominence this season when you made a very fair gesture. Last December when you were playing Marseille, you went and told the referee that Bakary Kone, who had been sent off, did not actually elbow you.
I don’t deserve any credit for that. You mentioned something being logical earlier, and that’s exactly what this was. There wasn’t a foul so it was only natural that I should point that out. And it didn’t change the final result as we went on to win anyway.