For Zahović’s other teammates, the national team seemed to be a catalyst for international careers, but they seldom made it further than – with all due respect – Austria or Cyprus. Some were members of clubs like Tottenham or Porto, but their time there was short and they filled out the team rather than playing serious football. The coach at the time, Srečko Katanec, often described this as a serious problem, but it didn’t hurt the performance of the national team.
Ten years on and the situation couldn’t be more different. There are around 30 Slovenes in top European leagues, with nine of them on the rosters of first division clubs in Italy, Germany and France.
Things have gone so far that a regular member of Palermo, the eighth-placed club in Italian Serie A and a finalist of Italian Cup, is out of the national team. The man in question is Siniša Anđelković. He is only one in the phalanx of Slovenians on Sicily. It was Josip Iličić who threw the door open when he joined Palermo from Maribor. He instantly made a name for himself and went on to score eight goals for his club. He was soon joined by Anđelković, Armin Bačinović and Jasmin Kurtić. Iličić and Bačinović were regularly on Palermo’s starting roster and it came as no surprise when they extended their deals with Palermo by another five years.
Speaking of Italy, the biggest star is without doubt Samir Handanović. Udinese’s goalkeeper saved his goal intact 14 times and blocked six penalty kicks out of eight, equalling Giuseppe Moro’s record from the 1948/49 season. During his seven years at Udinese, he saved 11 penalty kicks out of 26. Moro’s overall record is 16 out of 44.
Handanović, 26, has often been linked to the biggest European teams, such as Bayern or Manchester United, but this has never gone further than rumours. With Udinese finishing fourth in Serie A, which puts them in contention for the Champions League, Handanović is likely to stay in Udine for at least another year.
No less than five Slovenes will be members of tenth-placed Genoa next year. Four of them are likely to be kept in reserve while Valter Birsa is set to further establish himself as a top midfielder. He is joining Genoa from Auxerre, France, where he spent six years and played in the Champions League last year.
The surprise of the year was Tim Matavž, 22, who excelled himself in Groningen, Holland. His 18 goals for the team (which makes him the fourth best scorer in Eredivisie) attracted the manager of Napoli and everything looked set for Matavž’s transfer to Italy. However, the deal fell through at the last minute for unknown reasons.
Boštjan Cesar’s career looked rather grim after spending five years in France, including one year on a loan in England, and only rarely finding his place on the starting roster. But his transfer to Chievo, Italy, gave his career a fresh start. He became a regular member of the first team squad and even scored three goals, one more than during the five years in France and England. This was enough for another two-year contract. His Slovenian colleague in the team is Bojan Jokić.
It is never boring in the company of Milivoje Novaković, 32, a striker for Bundesliga Team 1, FC Köln. Having made his way through minor Austrian teams, he became the top scorer of Bulgarian first division, after which he landed a deal with Köln. But even there he and his team first had fight through the second division. He was the team’s top scorer during the 2008/09 season in the first division but then fell out with the new coach Zvonimir Soldo. After Soldo was sacked, Novaković was back to his best form. With 17 goals, he reached third place in the Bundesliga top scorers’ list, which earned him an extension to his deal until 2014. According to some statistics, Novaković was actually the most efficient scorer in all top European’s leagues, needing 2.47 strikes per goal, on average. Defender Mišo Brečko is the other Slovenian member of the team.
Andraž Kirm had a quiet time in Krakow, Poland, but he became national champion with the team with every chance to qualify for the Champions League next year.