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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Rudonja - A reluctant hero
Slovenia's Mladen Rudonja
Rudonja has played a crucial role in Slovenia's success

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He scored the all-important goal that sent his country to this summer's World Cup finals when few expected them to make it through the qualifying stages.

He was voted sports personality of the year for his heroics on the pitch, his equalising goal replayed time and time again to the delight of soccer fans across the nation.

But the player in question is not David Beckham - it is in fact Mladen Rudonja of Slovenia, and formerly of English First Division side Portsmouth.

Open Quote
This is the biggest event for Slovenia in the past decade
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Mladen Rudonja

Despite barely featuring for Pompey in his 18 months at the club, the 30-year-old forward is an automatic first choice for Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec.

Rudonja's goal against Romania in the World Cup play-offs has seen him assume national hero status.

Yet he remains modest about his exploit.

"I don't feel like a star because we did this as a team," Rudonja told BBC Sport Online.

"I don't feel as though I have done anything special myself. Far from it.

"All of us, the players, the fans and the coach, deserve praise.

Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec
Katanec commands the respect of his players

"I think we had a great qualifying campaign. We didn't lose a single game. I'm confident and I believe in this team.

"It won't be easy for any team that plays against Slovenia in the World Cup.

"But, to be quite honest, we are not thinking of causing any great stir by reaching the quarter-finals or something similar.

"Our aim, game by game, is to play with maximum commitment, to give 100% and see how things stand at the end of the first group stage.

"If we have enough points, then great - if we don't then no one can criticise us because we will have given everything and that is our moto: Give everything."

Slovenia, a country that gained its independence in 1991, has a population of just 2m and is more likely to win sporting recognition in handball, basketball or skiing.

Not now the World Cup beckons.

Slovenia's Mladen Rudonja
Rudonja remains modest about his qualifying exploits

"This is a massive achievement for Slovenia - for the promotion of our country," Rudonja added.

"Everyone now knows that Slovenia play football, that Slovenia is somewhere in Europe.

"This is the biggest kind of promotion for a country as small and as young as ours.

"This means so much and Slovenes are aware of that - they are all behind us.

"This is the biggest event for our country in the past decade.

"As a Slovene it is difficult to describe certain things with words.

"But, for me, making the World Cup is something phenomenal, absolutely unforgettable which happens only once in your life."

Katanec is held in high esteem by his charges, and Rudonja in particular.

"Turbo Rudi" played 52 matches for Slovenia without scoring and Katanec once remarked that if Rudonja did ever score he would resign.

Fortunately Katanec, a former star with Serie A side Sampdoria, did not keep his word.

"Srecko is a great coach," Rudonja said.

"Even though he is young, he has lots of experience. He knows us very well.

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Portsmouth are history for me and now I've got to find my luck elsewhere
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Mladen Rudonja

"We are a united group and he has been able to impose his own ideas on us.

"He plans the game according to the players he has at his disposal.

"We respect each other and that is a formula which Katanec has come up with and is why he has been so successful."

Rudonja admitted to feeling disappointed at not having been given the chance to prove himself at Portsmouth.

"I'm sad that I didn't play more games for Portsmouth because I was extremely happy with everything - the chairman, the fans.

"I know that I could have contributed more to the team.

"Portsmouth are history for me and now I've got to find my luck elsewhere."

But the good fortune Rudonja seeks has already presented itself in the shape of the highly-rated Katanec, whose first name just happens to mean "lucky" in Slovene.

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SPAIN 3 +5 9
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SOUTH AFRICA 3 0 4
SLOVENIA 3 -5 0

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