Slovenia's Milan Osterc (left) celebrates after his country takes a 1-0 lead against Romania (©EPA)
Slovenia earn Europe's respect
In English, his name means plain "lucky". Yet something must have been lost in the translation when you consider the achievements of Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec.
Since taking over from Bojan Prasnikar, the former VfB Stuttgart and Sampdoria UC midfielder has led his country to two major championships: EURO 2000™ and the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals. And by December 2001, this Alpine nation of 1.9 million people, better known for skiing than soccer, was 25th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola world rankings.
Katanec began to work his alchemy in 1998, after Slovenia's dismal qualifying campaign for France 98. He brought the professional habits he had learned in Germany and Italy to the national squad, while benefiting from a confidence born of NK Maribor's exploits in European competition. In 1999/00 the Slovenian champions reached the first group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
The first real sign of progress came with qualification for the UEFA European Championship in the Netherlands and Belgium. Wins over Latvia, Georgia and Albania, and a well-earned draw in Greece, secured second place behind Norway in Group Two and entry into the play-offs. Here they met fancied Ukraine. However, the form book went out of the window as Katanec's side edged the first leg in Ljubljana 2-1 then held the favourites 1-1 in the snow in Kiev.
Three-goal lead lost
Thousands gathered to greet the team on their return, yet it was the following June before the country's dream factories went into overtime. Slovenia's first match at EURO 2000™ was against Yugoslavia. Despite the political baggage surrounding the fixture, their approach was stress free as they raced into a 3-0 lead with two goals from Zlatko Zahovic and another from Miran Pavlin. However, the downside of Katanec's positive tactics was that Yugoslavia found a way back into the game - scoring three times in six second-half minutes to earn a draw.
That was also the way of things in Slovenia's other Group C matches. The neutral's choice got less than they deserved from a 2-1 defeat by Spain and a 0-0 stalemate with Norway to finish bottom of the section.
'People believe in us'
No matter, back home Katanec and Co were feted as heroes. "We've moved all of Slovenia - my heart is full because people now believe in us," Katanec said. "We no longer have to be afraid of any team in Europe." True to his word, the coach then oversaw a friendly victory over the Czech Republic before the serious work of qualifying for the FIFA 2002 World Cup finals.
Future in question
The journey to the Far East was no rose-strewn futon. Slovenia lost a two-goal lead in their first Group One tie, drawing 2-2 in the Faroe Islands. Then Katanec had a much-publicised row with star man Zahovic, before seeing his own future called into question with reports of a move to Olympiakos Piraeus FC.
But after opening with one win and four draws, the Slovenes suddenly hit form. They recorded four wins and one draw to beat Yugoslavia to second place in a pool that also included Russia, Switzerland, the Faroes and Luxembourg.
Russia win vital
Most important was the 2-1 home triumph over Russia in September, earned by a late Milenko Acimovic penalty, in what was their third-last match. This moved them above Yugoslavia, a position they maintained with a 1-1 draw in Belgrade in the sides' penultimate fixture. So the subsequent 3-0 defeat of the Faroes in October left Slovenia on course for a play-off with Romania, opponents they had never beaten.
No respect for history
Katanec's men are no respecters of history, however, and Mladen Rudonja's first goal in 53 international appearances clinched a 3-2 aggregate success in Bucharest after a 2-1 win in Ljubljana. Iconoclasts they may be. But what else would you expect of a nation that only achieved independence in 1991?
An old article I found on UEFA but I thought I may as well post it here