Profiles - World Cup Teams - Slovenia
Slovenia When Slovenia gained independence in 1991, its soccer team was considered the weakest of all the former Yugoslav republics.

A decade later, while Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Macedonia sit at home, Srecko Katanec's side along with Croatia are on their way to South Korea and Japan to take part in the World Cup in June for the first time in their short history.

The transformation can be attributed to the arrival of Katanec, the former Yugoslav international, who took over their national team in July 1998.

In their unsuccessful qualifying campaign for France 98, Slovenia had gathered a single point from eight matches after one draw and seven losses.

But Katanec immediately guided Slovenia to a place in the 2000 European championship finals, a feat hailed as the most important in the sporting history of the small Alpine nation which has a population of less than two million.

This time in World Cup qualifying they won five and drew five of their 10 games, reaching the play-offs by finishing second in their group above, of all teams, Yugoslavia.

Slovenia then saw off Romania, like the Yugoslavs a team with excellent World Cup pedigree, to confirm their place in South Korea and Japan.

The size of the achievement was such that some in Slovenia even suggested it might be even more important than gaining independence itself.

'With this success Slovenia has become a normal state, with people cheering our victories and mourning our defeats,' said Rudi Zavrl, head of the Slovenian Football Association.

Slovenia's emergence as a football power is remarkable.

Pre-independence, Olimpija Ljubljana were the only Slovenian club side to ever play in the Yugoslav first division.

Katanec, together with Branko Oblak who won 46 caps in the 1970s, was one of the few Slovenians to make their mark in the Yugoslav national side. He also won the Italian Serie A title with Sampdoria in 1991.

As national team coach he faces all the usual problems associated with managing one of Europe's poor soccer nations.

Only three of Katanec's World Cup qualifying team play in their domestic league so securing their release from their foreign clubs for internationals is never easy.

Furthermore, many of those players based abroad are not regulars with their respective clubs, meaning they are often short of match practice.

Katanec refused to use that as an excuse during qualification, even when deprived of star player Zlatko Zahovic who missed several qualifiers due to suspension and injury.

Zahovic's absence was covered by 24-year-old Red Star Belgrade midfielder Milenko Acimovic and 22-year-old newcomer Nastja Ceh of Belgium's Club Bruges, who scored twice in his debut against the Faroe Islands.

During the play-off against Romania, Slovenia defied the critics who said their lack of strength-in-depth would count against them.

They defeated the 1994 quarter-finalists 2-1 at home and then earned a battling 1-1 draw in Romania without top scorer Zahovic, defenders Aleksander Knavs and Spasoje Bulajic, and striker Sebastjan Cimirotic.

In Zeljko Milinovic and Marinko Galic, Slovenia have redoubtable defenders who proved their worth against the Romanian onslaught.

Milan Osterc and Mladen Rudonja are hard-working strikers who have become favourites with Slovenia's fans after they both scored in the play-off matches with Romania.

Osterc scored an amazing match-winner in the first leg, while Rudonja calmly stroked in Slovenia's goal in the second leg in Bucharest, his first goal for the national team in 53 caps.

If Benfica midfielder Zahovic can regain fitness, Slovenia are capable of surprising anyone. But for now they are just glad to be going.

'We still can't fully comprehend our achievement,' said their captain Ales Ceh. homepage