Monday, November 23, 2009

Ecstasy for Slovenia

Lost amidst the Ireland-France handball controversy was a remarkable story - the surprising qualification of Slovenia for the World Cup in South Africa. With a population of just two million, Slovenia is the 2nd smallest of the Yugoslav Republics (after Montenegro) and the smallest nation to qualify for South Africa. The Slovenian soccer team will be playing on the world’s biggest soccer stage this summer while Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic and, alas, Ireland will all be watching from home.

One of the fascinating things about International soccer is observing how a nation’s history, character, passions and tensions are expressed in its soccer culture, observations recounted in compelling fashion by Simon Kuper in “Football Against the Enemy” and Franklin Foer in “How Soccer Explains the World.” In the case of war-torn former Yugoslavia, this phenomenon has been more than fascinating, it has been utterly horrifying. A 1991 riot at a soccer match in Zagreb offered a prelude to the savage war that would follow. Meanwhile, thousands of hooligans – fiercely nationalist, violent and unemployed – came from the terraces of Red Star Belgrade to serve as shock troops for Serbian paramilitary units charged with war crimes. Now, 15 years after Dayton and nearly 10 years after NATO bombs fell on Serbia, there is relative stability, though the political situation in parts of Bosnia and Kosovo remains tenuous. What was once Yugoslavia is now 6 separate nations: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia. Life goes on and of course, this means there is soccer.

Serbia and Croatia, the two largest of the Yugoslav republics have had the greatest success on the pitch. Croatia, playing in their famous red and white checked shirts, was a surprise semi-finalist at the 1998 World Cup tournament and though they failed to qualify this time, they are still ranked 10th in the world by FIFA. Serbia, with their strong defenders, qualified easily in 2006 and again this time around, finishing ahead of France in their group. Bosnia & Herzegovina very nearly qualified but had the bad luck to draw Portugal in the two-legged playoff. When Slovenia last qualified, in 2002, fans and commentators thought it was a fluke. Yet here they are again..

Slovenia is the most western of the Yugoslav Republics, both geographically and culturally. It is also the most prosperous. From Venice, Italy, the Slovenian border is less than 100 miles away. This mountainous region, extending down to the Mediterranean saw fierce fighting in World War I, when Slovenia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovenia was fortunately spared the violence of the last decade’s Yugoslav wars and, by 2004, became a member of both NATO and the European Union.

Amazingly, Slovenia can claim to be one of the world’s great sporting nations. The Julian Alps dominate the north of the country and so it’s not surprising that skiing is popular. Several Slovenian skiers have won Olympic medals. And there’s hockey. When you think about European hockey, you probably think of Scandinavia or the former Soviet Union – you don’t think Yugoslavia. Yet the Slovenian hockey team is ranked 17th in the world, impressive when consider there are more people living in the metropolitan area of Denver than there are in Slovenia. A Slovenian player, An┼że Kopitar, stars for the L.A. Kings and leads the NHL in scoring. The head coach of Slovenia national hockey team is an American named John Harrington. He knows something about being an underdog. He was a member of the miracle U.S. team that knocked off the Soviets and won the Gold Medal at Lake Placid in 1980.

In summer sports too, Slovenia can boast some impressive accomplishments. Like other Eastern European nations, gymnastics is a huge and the nation’s greatest sports hero, Miroslav Cerar, is one of the best gymnasts of all time. More recently, Slovenia won 5 medals in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and led all European nations in the medals-per-capita category.

And then there is soccer. On Wednesday, Slovenia secured its place in South Africa with a 1-0 win over Russia, who is no pushover. (Russia was a semi-finalist in the last major tournament, Euro 2008.) Slovenia's traveling fans, nicknamed the Green and White Army, is a small, but passionate lot. BBC showed a clip of their supporters who travelled to Belfast for an April qualifier against Northern Ireland. In spite of a disappointing loss before a tough crowd, the fans played accordion and sang cheerfully. A fan who was interviewed spoke well of his visit Belfast and complimented the nation’s beer. What more can you ask for?

So watch for Slovenia in their green and white jerseys. They will have their work cut out for them in June and most observers would probably conclude that just qualifying for South Africa is more than anyone could have hoped for. Soccer fans looking for a World Cup upset or a radical overturning of the International soccer order, would probably place their hopes with an African team, or maybe one from Asia or North America (the U.S. anyone?). But there is something appealing about the prospect of this small, Alpine nation finding success against the forces of history and the great soccer powers of the world.

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