Play-off Heroes – Slovenia’s Soccer Team
3.7.2018 | Fiona Thompson
With the eyes of the world on Russia and the 2018 football World Cup tournament, now is a good time to look at Slovenia’s national side and its relatively short history. Slovenia didn’t have a team recognised by FIFA until the country became independent in 1991, and before that any team with the name Slovenia was merely classed as regional.
The first competitive match played by a FIFA-recognised Slovenian team was in 1992 in Tallinn against Estonia and the game finished in a 1-1 draw. This team was managed by Bojan Prašnikar. The team got its first win the following year, in just its third game, again playing against Estonia but this time playing in Ljubljana at the ŽŠD stadium. Today Slovenia plays its home games mostly in Ljubljana at the new Stožice stadium though in recent years games alternated between Ljubljana and Maribor’s Ljudski vrt where gates tend to be slightly bigger.
Pranikar was succeeded by Zdenko Verdenik who was the first manage to lead Slovenia through the qualifying stages of an international tournament, namely the 1996 European Championships. Following a dismal showing in the qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, Verdenik was fired and Prašnikar was invited to retake the helm. However, he was at the time also the manager of NK Maribor and when advised he could only carry out one role, he opted for the latter. In his place, Srečko Katanec was given the job of head coach of Slovenia.
Katanec’s first qualifying campaign was to try to get Slovenia into the group stages of Euro 2000. The team did well in the group (with Norway, Greece, Latvia, Georgia and Albania) and finished second, meaning they had to face Ukraine in a play-off to go through the the championship proper. The match was played over two legs and saw Slovenia win 3-2 on aggregate. Sadly despite qualifying for the tournament, Slovenia finished bottom of their group (in which were also Spain, FR Yugoslavia and Norway) with two points.
For the 2002 World Cup qualifying, Slovenia again finished second in their group and this time earned a play-off against Romania in which they went through to the championship proper with another 3-2 victory overall. Again, however, they finished bottom of their group at the 2002 World Cup. It was a a turbulent time for the squad, with much drama and the team’s star player Zlatko Zahovič having a dressing room bust-up with Katanec and being sent home in disgrace. What was particularly sad about the whole affair was the Zahovič was at the time Slovenia’s leading goal scorer and the team’s talisman.
Following the tournament, Katanec resigned and – you’ve guessed it – Prašnikar took over the reins again. In the qualifying for Euro 2004, Slovenia again finished 2nd in their group and once again ended up in a play-off, this time against neighbour Croatia, which they won 2-1. Slovenian striker Ermin Šiljak scored nine goals in this qualifying campaign making him the top goalscorer in the whole of qualifying.
A fairly disappointing period ensued until qualification for the 2010 World Cup under Matjaž Kek. For a 4th time, Slovenia ended in second place and this time drew Russia in a play-off. Though the result was 2-2, Slovenia qualified due to the away goals rule. In the tournament, Slovenia were in a group with USA, England and Algeria. Only the top two could progress, but Slovenia put in a good account of themselves and finished third in the group with 4 points.
Before independence, Slovenia played in a kit that was a variation of the white, red and blue of Yugoslavia and continued to do so even after independence until 1994 at which point it was decided to adopt a white strip with green trim. For the 2018/19 season, the kit is white with an image of Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain, depicted in shades of blue on the front of the shirt.
The country’s most capped player is Bostjan Cesar (2003–2018) with 101 appearances, while the highest goalscorer is Zlatko Zahovič with 35 goals scored between 1992 and 2004. He leads Milivoje Novakovič who scored 32 goals in the period from 2006 to 2017.