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banner Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 16:45 GMT
Slovenia in wonderland
Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec and Zlatko Zahovic
Slovenia owes World Cup spot to Katanec and Zahovic
BBC Sport Online's Nada Grkinic looks at how Slovenia have shaken off their novelty tag to reach their first ever World Cup under the shrewd stewardship of Srecko Katanec.

Lucky by name, lucky by nature.

But Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec has not relied on good fortune to guide his side to next year's World Cup.

Srecko is Slovenian for lucky, but the coach won't mind what the fans call him after the former Yugoslav republic made sure of their passage to Korea and Japan on Wednesday.

Holding Romania to a 1-1 draw in Bucharest was enough to seal Slovenia a 3-2 aggregate victory.

On the back foot for most of the second leg, Slovenia defended heroically to deny Gheorghe Hagi's Romania their fourth successive appearance at the World Cup.

And in doing so Slovenia, which has a population of just two million, entered the realms of footballing fantasy.

It is the first time the Balkan nation has qualified for the World Cup.

Slovenia's Mladen Rudonja
Rudonja: Only three starts for Portsmouth

This in itself is a massive achievement.

But the fact they have got there with players who do not get regular first-team action with their club sides makes the Katanec success story even more impressive.

Mladen Rudonja scored the all-important goal for Slovenia on Wednesday - his first in 53 games for the national side.

But he has only made three starts for Portmouth since joining the club in July 2000.

The mercurial Zlatko Zahovic, arguably Slovenia's most influential player with 30 goals in 59 appearances, struggled to hold down a first-team place at Valencia during the qualifying stages.

Yet the midfielder has played a crucial part in Slovenia's historic feat.

Slovenia's saviour

Katanec does not have an abundance of players from which to choose, but has opted for consistency.

The Slovenia coach has kept faith with the 18 or so players he inherited when he took the job in 1998.

And they have responded in kind, showing grit and determination which have characterised their rise from Balkan minnows to tricky opponents.

Somewhat derided prior to Euro 2000, Slovenia made sure they would no longer be confused with Slovakia on the continent after the tournament.

Katanec's side proved they were no push-overs, holding neighbours and rivals Yugoslavia to 3-3 draw, thwarting the threat of Norway in a goalless encounter and only just losing to Spain 2-1.

Slovenia striker Milan Osterc
Osterc: Scorer of some crucial goals

During the World Cup qualifying group stage, Slovenia prevailed over Russia and pipped their Yugoslav counterparts to the play-off spot.

For a man not yet in his 40s, Katanec has also shrugged off any doubts about his ability to make the switch from player to manager.

Katanec enjoyed a successful playing career, most notably with Serie A side Sampdoria, and also experienced the 1990 World Cup with Yugoslavia.

When he eventually quit playing, Katanec had brief spells as Slovenia Under-21 coach and then as club manager with Gorica.

It was more an act of desperation that the inexperienced Katanec was offered the senior national team post.

The Slovene FA appointed Katanec after his predecessors Zdenko Verdenik and Bojan Prasnikar failed to make any impact on the national team's fortunes.

Lucky he may have been to have landed the job, but a leap of blind faith has resulted in a step of far greater proportions for Slovenia.

See also:

14 Nov 01 |  World Cup 2002
Slovenia book World Cup place
Other top World Cup 2002 stories:

Links to more World Cup 2002 stories are at the foot of the page.

 

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