Back to the future for Slovenia
© AFP

You could say that Slovenia have all the right ingredients to join football's elite. On one hand, they appear to be a typically Balkan nation with plenty of skill on the ball. On the other, there are definite North and Central European influences to be found in their style of play.

This small country on the Adriatic coast only have around two million inhabitants to recruit players from, but their aim is to punch above their weight and reach the standards set by Europe's bigger footballing nations.

Slovenians may still hark back to the glory days of local hero Zlatko Zahovic, who plied his trade for prestigious clubs such as FC Porto, Benfica. Olympiacos and Valencia, but they are philosophical about failing to negotiate the qualifiers for the UEFA EURO 2008. With three games left to play in Group G, they are already ten points adrift of leaders Romania and Netherlands having played a game more.

Double delight
Two recent victories in a row have been enough to rekindle memories of Slovenia's wonder years, however - EURO 2000 and the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™ is now on the agenda, and Matjaz Kek and his men are very much in the right frame of mind.

Klemen Lavric, who plays for Bundesliga team Duisburg, scored the winner in Celje when Slovenia beat Belarus 1-0 in mid-September, a mere four days after they had won 3-0 in Luxembourg with Lavric, who according to rumours had Real Madrid sniffing around him at the start of the season, scoring twice and Milivoje Novakovic, who plays in the German second division for Cologne, also getting on the score-sheet.

The hopes of Slovenian football are resting squarely on the shoulders of this strike partnership, and they have certainly responded by helping their country climb back up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The latest table saw Slovenia gain 72 points and shoot up 19 places to 75th spot on 429 points. They were actually higher in February (71st) and March (72nd) of this year, but it should be remembered that as recently as August, they had slipped down to 94th.

They are still a long way off their best-ever ranking of 25th in December 2001 but, given time, coach Kek is confident of masterminding a return to the halcyon days of Zahovic and Co's 'Golden Generation'. "We are currently building a whole new team and that takes time," explained the 46-year-old, who took over the managerial reins in January 2007.

New impetus and team spirit
The former defender with famous Austrian club AK Graz feels that two major changes are vital for continued success: instilling a renewed sense of team spirit and bringing down the squad's average age. In Luxembourg and against Belarus, he was brave enough to introduce a number of fresh faces and reaped immediate rewards.

This weekend, Slovenia will be looking to keep the impetus going with three points at home to Albania. The following Wednesday, they will face a real test away to Netherlands. A surprise result against one of the big guns would be just the ticket to boost Slovenian morale and help them take another step on the road to the appropriately named Cape of Good Hope.