Football in Slovenia has always been a bipolar phenomenon, uniting a nation and then contriving to divide it all over again.
A Milenko Acimovic goal signalled the dawn of the first golden age of Slovenian football, just nine years after the countries official autonomous birth. The crowd that night at the Bezigrad stadium witnessed a goal that prompted the commentator on Eurosport to bellow ” David Beckham, where are you now?” In similar fashion to Beckham against Wimbledon all those years ago, Acimovic picked up a rash clearence from Ukrainian goalkeeper Olexander Shovkovskyi and sent a looping shot over the head of the flailing keeper and into the Ukrainian goal. The goal went a long way to certifying qualification for Euro 2000 and a chance to advertise Slovenia to the world.
The manager of the team in the famous Euro 2000 qualifying campain, Srecko Katanec, continued to work wonders for the Slovenian football team and the identity of the country itself. Katanec, born to two Croatian parents retained immense pride in seeing his Slovenia prosper, but his joy didn’t last long. A goal in Ljubljana signalled the begining of the Slovenian golden age. A substitution in Jeju signalled the begining of the end.
Zlatko Zahovic, Slovenia’s record goalscorer, kicked a bottle as he left the pitch that night in Jeju. Slovenia went on to lose 3-1 to opponents Spain, but the result was not the main talking point back in Slovenia. France Arkhar, a senior figure from the Banka Slovenije, picked the wrong day to announce his intent to run for presidency, his story appeared second on the newsreels, after the news of Zahovic’s subsitution. A surefire illustration that Slovenia had well and truly caught the footballing bug.
“Certain players have not done anything in attack” Katanec moaned in a post match press conference. His slur at the lack of attacking success was directed at his best player and national treasure Zahovic. Katanec continued to announce that the tournament would be “the end” of his reign as Slovenia manager and cited internal squabbles as the main reason for his departure. A plot was now unravelling. And fast.
Ljubljana and Styria are Slovenian regions home to the two most successful Slovenian teams: Olimpija Ljubljana and Maribor. The two teams form the main support bases of domestic Slovenian football fans and when the two teams compete fans passion often spills into violence and racist slurs. The racism between the two regions has been a key factor in Slovenia since it gained independence. It now seemed that domestic squabbles had filtered through to the national football team.
Katanec a disciplined, no thrills kind of manager was always likely to clash with the careless flamboyance of his playmaker, the regional issue of the manager hailing from Ljubljana and Zahovic being a Styrian was not the source of the conflict but it did give reason to magnify it. The incident it seemed stemmed back to the fact that during the match Zahovic was berating his manager, questioning his decisions to substitute Styrians in favour of Ljubljancan’s whilst refering to Katanec as a “Ljubljancan c**t.” The Slovenian FA held an emergency meeting to determine whether Zahovic should be sent home, unanimously the FA decided that their best player should stay with the squad.
With himself relieved of the blame, Zahovic then proceeded to deliver what he thought was an apology. ” The first time I miss one or two passes he [Katanec] shouldn’t say he will f**k my Mother, because he didn’t f**k my Mother and he won’t f**k my Mother. If he wants to he can start talking to me.” That , it seemed, was too much for the Slovenian FA who promptly told Zahovic to pack his bags and return home. Slovenia crashed out of the 2002 World Cup, the golden age over, and the national team have’nt been seen since.
That is, until the 2010 World Cup where a Robert Koren goal thrust three points into the hands of the Slovenian’s and put them top of the group. A resolute 2-2 draw against the USA in the second round of games means Slovenia are leading Group C, by two points, with only one game left. Their opponents? England. Capello’s men go into the game on Wednesday needing a win to secure a place in the next round. The Slovenian’s go into the tie knowing that they could make history by signalling the dawn of the second golden age in Slovenia’s short history. The united nation have fight passion and belief, they are representing everything that they stand for: a free, united, Slovenia. I know who I’m backing on Wednesday.