U.S. delivers parting shot to Slovenia
Hopes of advancing at World Cup dashed by Americans' goal in extra time
Amid the euphoric England cheering, there were groans and tears of disbelief from Slovenia fans who had seen their team's chances of advancing at the World Cup ruined twice in an as many matches by late U.S. goals.
At Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium Wednesday, the disappointments came in quick succession for Slovenia.
Slovenia lost 1-0 to England in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to surrender top place in the group but were still confident of securing a place in the round of 16 when that match ended. Minutes later, in another Group C match at Pretoria, Landon Donovan scored in injury time to give the U.S. a 1-0 win over Algeria.
That win ensured the Americans would finish first in Group C with five points. England finished second — also with five points — and in an instant, Slovenia, the smallest nation at the World Cup with a population of two million, ended third, with four points.
It could have been so different.
Slovenia led the U.S. 2-0 at half time in their second group match before the Americans rallied for a 2-2 draw. A win there and the Slovenians would have secured a place in the knockout stage with a group match to spare.
Slovenia coach Matjak Kek said the late U.S. goal against Algeria, which Donovan called "hands down, the biggest moment in my career," was disheartening for his side.
"You see, this is indescribable, but this is sport," Kek said. "I am looking for reasons within me."
"Of course some people say I might be disappointed, but I am really proud that I have come with Slovenia so far."
Slovenia, not as widely recognized as its Balkan neighbours Croatia and Serbia, is the third-smallest nation to make a World Cup Northern Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago have fewer people.
Slovenia started the World Cup with a 1-0 win — it's first at soccer's showpiece tournament — helped by a bad mistake from Algeria goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi.
Then Valter Birsa's strike in the 13th minute and Zlatan Ljubijankic's goal on the counterattack in the 42nd gave Slovenia a seemingly comfortable cushion at half time against the United States at Ellis Park.
But then Donovan scored for the Americans in the 48th minute and Michael Bradley equalized in the 82nd against a tiring defence.
That all brought Slovenia to its final group game, when a draw would have likely seen them get through to the second round.
"I think Slovenia played a good game, but when you play to draw you play not how you usually play," England coach Fabio Capello said.
Kek said he hoped the tournament would be a "very positive experience for us." Initially, at least, his players were not in the same frame of mind.
"Our sportsmen should be left alone for a while as they are feeling very hard moments," he said.
That reflected the mood in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
There'd been bursts of joy and people hugging each other amid a wave of national flags after Slovenia's match against England ended, but only for a minute or so.
"We were two minutes away from a miracle," said Slavica Sancin, a 35-year-old tailor, said after Donovan's goal.
'We weren't lucky'
Slovenia beat Russia in a playoff to reach the World Cup.
"This time, we had a chance to kick out Americans. Two superpowers," Sancin said, reflecting on the qualifying and the World Cup. "Our team did its best. Simply, we weren't lucky."
As Slovenia advanced through qualifications and then made it to South Africa, a soccer fever hit virtually everyone in the tiny Alpine country. Even the influential Roman Catholic church hasn't escaped it: During a recent mass, a prominent bishop, Alojzij Uran, thanked God for the team's success and wished them luck.
On Wednesday, nearly all businesses closed while the last Group C matches were on. Some 6,000 people gathered before the big TV screen near the fair in the capital. The city was flooded in flags: they were on buildings, cars, in people's hands — a rare occurrence in Slovenia, which is quite shy about exposing its national feelings.
Slovenia lost all three matches at its first trip to the World Cup in 2002. So at least there was improvement.
"It's so, so sad," said Dorian Majcic, 26. "This time we really had a chance. Still, we were there and we showed what we can do."
Kek said overall he was pleased with his side's play at the World Cup.
"I have seen that we made a lot of effort," Kek said. "When it comes to our players we still need more experience, to play at such a level every four years. They are maturing a lot and they will come to a point where they will play their best."
And that gives him confidence for the future of Slovenian football.
"I hope these players will be role models for our players who might join Slovenia in the future," Kek said. "We have created huge potential and it's up to us to use it. We need to benefit from this."