Proud for Slovenia: Anze Kopitar

Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar, the first Slovenian to play in the NHL, will watch with great interest when Slovenia competes at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Kings forward Anze Kopitar will watch with great interest when Slovenia competes at next year's World Cup in South Africa. ((Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images))

It was one of the biggest moments in Slovenian sports history — and Anze Kopitar slept right through it.

Drawn against a talented Russia team boasting the ever-dangerous Andrei Arshavin in a do-or-die playoff series, Slovenia faced an uphill battle to qualify for next year's World Cup in South Africa. When Russia took a two-goal lead in the first leg in Moscow on Nov. 14, it appeared to be all over for the upstart Slovenians.

But they nicked a late goal in a 2-1 loss, and then won 1-0 in the return leg at home on Nov. 18 to beat the Russians via the away-goal rule and claim a World Cup berth for only the second time, setting off wild celebrations on the streets of Maribor and Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital.

And what was Kopitar, a star forward with the Los Angeles Kings and the first-ever Slovenian to play in the NHL, doing at the time? The Kings were slated to host the Philadelphia Flyers later that night, which meant Kopitar was asleep when the soccer game was on.

"I wanted to watch it, but I had to have my pre-game nap," Kopitar confessed to "I know it was a big deal back home. Everybody is excited that they qualified for the World Cup for only the second time."

Currently enjoying his most productive campaign in four seasons with the Kings — he ranks seventh in NHL scoring with 16 goals and 38 points in 37 games — Kopitar is immensely proud of his countrymen, whose qualifying games he was forced to watch online, as most of them weren't televised locally in Los Angeles.

"Advancing to the World Cup is phenomenal. The country has such a small amount of soccer players. It is just not a big soccer country. So to make it to the World Cup is huge for us. I am really proud of them," the Kings forward said.

Indeed, Slovenia is not a traditional soccer super power. Its only previous World Cup appearance came in 2002 when it meekly bowed out in the first round following three consecutive losses.

And things won't get any easier for Kopitar's compatriots next year, as Slovenia was drawn into a difficult round-robin group with England (touted as one of the top contenders), the United States (who finished first in the CONCACAF qualifiers) and Algeria (who upset African champions Egypt to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986).

All three countries are in the top 30 in the current FIFA rankings, while Slovenia comes in at number 31. But Kopitar believes his country can overcome the odds, like it did against Russia, and advance to the knockout stage of next year's tournament in South Africa.

"I don't know much about Algeria, but I know that England is a good team and that the U.S. is good, too," Kopitar stated. "If we can play up to our capabilities I don't see why we can't advance. We beat Russia, which is one of the best teams in the world to get in, so if we can play like that who knows what can happen?"

Kopitar played soccer, as well as a variety of other sports, growing up in Slovenia, and still plays during the summer to help stay in shape. Little wonder then that he's anxiously looking forward to next year's World Cup.

"Like I said, soccer is a big deal back home and to qualify for the World Cup has everybody excited. I know I'm excited about it," he said.