England may have underperformed at South Africa 2010, but Matjaz Kek is adamant. “I don’t care how they played in the first two matches. I believe we’re facing the toughest match for Slovenia under my management.”
Polite pre-match shows of respect are nothing new, of course, but Kek has earned a reputation for straight-talking – and there is nothing insincere about his esteem for Fabio Capello’s under-fire side. Respect, however, is where it begins and ends with the Slovenians. Because there is no reverence, and certainly no fear.
As Kek told FIFA: “I really don’t know why we should be afraid of anyone. The boys are more than aware of what they’re capable of. All the euphoria around the team has been brought about by their attitude and by the quality of their performances. They have proved they can compete with the best.”
Kek, in fact, sells his team a little short here. After all, they are not merely competing with their illustrious group rivals, but leading them, with a two-point cushion over both England and USA. The result is that Slovenia, the smallest nation at South Africa 2010, begin the final stage of the Group C race in pole position.
Considering their pre-tournament billing, taking those final steps towards the finishing line, and the Round of 16, would represent a remarkable and historic achievement. Yet just as important for Kek is the opportunity to raise the profile of his little-known known team and their tiny homeland.
I’m sure we’ll see another big, big show - a show that will make Slovenia and its players into household names around the world.
“Everyone knows that England are favourites and that’s completely logical,” he reflected. “But I’m convinced that everyone will also think much more of Slovenia than they did before.
“The players just have to believe in their quality, their capabilities. They need to help each other out, and be self-confident, brave and determined. If they do that, then I’m sure we’ll see another big, big show - a show that will make Slovenia and its players into household names around the world. I think that in this regard we’ve already achieved our basic aim, but we’re hoping and expecting to qualify for the next round.”
If there is one, solitary source of frustration for the Slovenians, it is that they were within eight minutes of reaching the knockout stage with a game to spare. That was the point at which Michael Bradley fired USA’s equaliser into the roof of the net, denying Kek’s side all three points and taking the Group C qualifying race down to a dramatic final day. However, the inevitable temptation to focus on the concession of a two-goal lead is eschewed by a proud Slovenia coach, who again opts to accentuate the positives.
“I think it was one of the best games of the World Cup,” he said of the 2-2 draw with the Americans. “If after the first game people were criticising the way we played, I think we proved why Slovenia is part of this World Cup, and more importantly showed the kind of football we can play.
“Of course we’re a bit bitter about the outcome, as you would expect after leading 2-0. But we all have to remember that we’re playing at the World Cup, at the highest possible level, and I have to stress that I’m very pleased with how my team is responding.
“We made mistakes, but mistakes are part and parcel of the job, and that includes myself. Those who fear making mistakes or think that they don’t make them are completely deluded. The important thing for me was that, when I was standing in the tunnel after the match, I could see both teams coming off the pitch looking very agitated. That encouraged me because it showed our boys were really disappointed. That means they are confident; that they believe.”