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The Emergence of Slovenia starring Zlatko Zahovič

March 26, 2011

After reading James Richardson’s piece in Calcio Italia on the intriguing man that is Zdenek Zeman, it got me thinking about another individual who too could “swap personalised luggage with Zinedine Zidane”. An individual who helped me to many victories in Football Hangman to the point of him being one of the first players that was banned from use in that less-celebrated of games to pass the time in a dreary school-lesson, Zlatko Zahovič was the poster boy for what has been dubbed Slovenia’s “Golden Generation” (those in the know maintain that the actual “Golden Generation” for Slovenia is just around the corner but more about that later).

Now back in his homeland as Technical Director of NK Maribor, Zahovič boosted the profile of Slovenian football around Europe with his various stints abroad, his best coming in the shirts of Portuguese heavyweights FC Porto and Benfica. Unfortunately, his breaking of the ground for a Slovenian in the upper echelon of the European game also meant the emergence of the now-fabled Zahovič ego. Zahovič has that stereotypical superstar profile: moody, precious, arrogant and somewhat inconsistent yet evidently blessed with natural talent that could produce moments of a sublime nature. The evidence is there both in his club and most particularly in his international career of this said attitude. Zahovič would prove inspirational to his country, scoring 8 goals in the qualifying round and helping them to their first ever major international finals qualification for Euro 2000. Slovenia failed to make it past the group phase but despite that, Zahovič was one of the top scorers in the tournament, netting on three occasions. This was a remarkable achievement for such a small nation especially when contrasting to their previous qualification campaign for a finals tournament (World Cup France’98) where they’d finished bottom of their group with just a solitary point from 8 games. Zahovič would continue to produce the goods for the national team despite enduring two awkward spells with Olympiakos in Greece and Valencia in Spain respectively. Slovenia would find themselves once again in a qualification play-off and would prove successful again, earning a place in what would be their first ever World Cup Finals appearance as a nation at the expense of Romania.

World Cup 2002 should have been where Zlatko Zahovič would announce himself on the biggest stage of all. He would do just that but not for reasons of footballing merit. Following the opening group game against Spain where Slovenia would fall to a 1-3 defeat, Zahovič would have an almighty bust-up with coach Srecko Kataneč after Zahovič was replaced in the game just after the hour mark. Zahovič’s insults were met by Kataneč sending the mercurial playmaker home and banishing him for the rest of the tournament. While an obvious disciplinary measure, this did irreparable damage to the team. Zahovič was the only player for Slovenia who could produce that moment of magic and without him Slovenia’s play greatly suffered. Zahovič would both create and finish chances, something that the rest of the team struggled with especially regarding the aspect of finishing. Zahovic brought the best out in his teammates, with Aleš Čeh proving to be the yin to Zahovič’s chaotic yang and representing the team ethic and the rugged approach in which Slovenia would defend. Combined with the likes of one-time Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Milenko Ačimovič and Portsmouth reject Mladen Rudonja, Slovenia would always be a threat but Zahovič’s influence proved too great. Without him, Slovenia were disposed of easily in their remaining group matches and departed South Korea pointless and soon after, Kataneč’s resignation was confirmed.

Slovenia’s achievements cannot be downplayed and given the size of the nation, they’ve done very well to reach 2 World Cup Finals and Euro 2000. As of late, things have improved for Slovenia as following World Cup 2002 and Zahovič’s international retirement in 2004, they endured a period where things were rather bleak in truth but a solid and spirited team has emerged under the guidance of Matjaž Kek. While none of the current crop are blessed with the natural ability of Zlatko Zahovič, Slovenia have a stronger pool of talent in quantity to draw from and with the likes of Josip Iličić to truly emerge, things are looking very positive for the Slovenian national team. Euro 2012 qualification is not an unobtainable goal as Slovenia have proved triumphant in situations similar to that of their current qualification group (for the last World Cup qualification success, they succeeded ahead of re-emerging powerhouse Russia in a play-off). Their group is now beginning to take shape with Italy looking a given for top spot and automatic qualification but 2nd place is definitely up for grabs as their biggest rivals Serbia continue to wallow in the midst of controversy and chronic underachievement.

For a sign of further positive signs for the future of Slovenian football, it’s worth looking at the talent conveyor belt that is NK Maribor’s youth system. The club itself were the first Slovenian club to ever compete at the highest level of European competition, and indeed qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage in 1999-00 (managing 4 points, 3 of those coming in a home victory against Dynamo Kyiv). While since then their European pedigree has been mixed they’ve recovered from a dark period (alas the pitfalls of accruing significant debt in the game), their reliance on their youth system has remained unwavered albeit with many of their young stars, like Zahovič before them, moving onto pastures new before making a first team appearance for the Vijoličasti (Internazionale’s Rene Krhin and Vid Belec to name two). Of course some have served a spell for their home club with the likes of Palermo’s Armin Bačinović springing to mind and the hope is that while some will of course want to go elsewhere in search of recognition and accolades, enough quality will pass under the watchful eyes of scouts from abroad and that NK Maribor may once again have a purple patch in Europe. While Slovenia haven’t achieved quite what similar-minded nations such as Croatia and Slovakia have done, the future of Slovenian football seems positive and just perhaps one of consistency. How wouldn’t Zahovič like to see himself as the instigator of such possibilities.

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