But Katanec resigned the offer, and Kek stayed in charge of the national team. He also never complained about anything, and wanted to make minimum of fuss about this (that's also his motto now, when dealing with that kind of peculiar happenings).
What followed was a serie of friendlies against quite solid teams, in which Slovenia would almost always lose by one goal but make quite a good performance. First was the 1 - 2 defeat to Denmark at home, followed by a 1 - 0 win away to Hungary (the goal was scored by the newcomer Mirnes Å iÅ¡iÄ). Sweden narrowly beat Slovenia 1 - 0 on their ground and then Croatia would beat us 2 - 3 in Maribor.
Then followed a 1 - 1 draw away to Poland in World Cup 2010 qualifiers, and a 2 - 1 win over Slovakia at home. Suddenly, Slovenia were in the middle of the battle for South Africa. And you know how it ended.
So why did we suddenly become so good?
There are two main reasons, and it is a bit lucky that they happened at the right time. So all the pieces fell together and we just started to ride the wave. But keep in mind that it was also the hard work and the determination of players, who maybe just needed a somewhat breakthrough.
1. The new Ljudski vrt stadium
I just cannot describe how great that stadium is. Maybe it doesn't have the greatness of Wembley, the tradition of Old Trafford, the might of Luzhniki or the history of Maracana, but it does have a GREAT atmosphere. Even better than the old BeÅ¾igrad stadium. And infinitely better than Arena Petrol. It was finished in May 2008 and was first used by the national team for the match against our biggest rivals Croatia. The app. 12.000-seater was full, with the Slovenian fans in good voice from the beginning. Although the match was lost 2 - 3, Slovenia showed some good play and even took the lead twice. So the effect of this stadium was shown immediately, and there was actually new hope and belief in the Slovenian people, after just one good match!
The stadium has since almost always been full or at least almost full. The only time it wasn't, was against San Marino and Qatar. In all the history, Slovenia only lost one competitive match at this stadium, and even that was only in the 1996 (Lithuania). The only team in this qualifying campaign that has avoided defeat here was Czech Republic.
It's also very beautiful (try to find some photos on the web).
2. Zlatko DediÄ
Would you believe if I told you that our play-off hero barely even played any for Slovenia before the start of qualifiers? Well, it's true. He collected five caps in 2004 and was then largely forgotten by the Slovenian public, also due to a fact that he was playing for Frosinone, the Italian Serie B side. He made one appearance in 2007, and another two in the above-mentioned friendlies against Hungary and Croatia. The majority of these caps came through the role of a substitute.
At the beginning of the qualifiers, Kek was facing troubles in attack. Former captain Klemen LavriÄ was out of form and not playing for his club, but there was no real candidate to play alongside NovakoviÄ at the front. So Kek even tried Å iÅ¡iÄ as a striker, and he did score two goals in those four friendlies. But he would have been more appropriate at the right flank of midfield and was not playing as a striker at his club. Kek decided to give DediÄ the chance, and put him into the starting XI for the Poland match. He scored a vital equaliser, and has since started every competitive match and probably will do so for quite some time from now on.
Despite that, he has only scored three goals for Slovenia so far. But they could hardly be more important. Away goal at Poland, the first goal in the home match against the very same team and one of the most important goals in Slovenia's history against Russia. Everybody loves him for his high work rate, determination, fighting spirit, open-heartedness and scoring in the crucial moments. He fell down from the sky as a solution to Slovenia's problems and is now living the dream of his life.
So, all that remains, is Part 3, or how did we battle our way to South Africa ...
P.S.: All our players are fit and non-injured down there. Expectation is higher than ever back at home, not just because our team, but also for the World Cup itself; everybody knows it's going to be special and fascinating. If I'll have time, I'll post the preview of Algeria match, and maybe something else too.
The world holds its breath ...