Saturday 09 April 2016, 11:42

Modest Slovenia eye major upset

When Andrej Dobovicnik, coach of Slovenia’s futsal national team, learned that his side would face Spain in the play-offs for the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016, his first reaction was: “The draw is not our friend!”

The 48-year-old could be forgiven for this pessimistic response. Their opponents from the Iberian Peninsula have reached the final at the last five Futsal World Cups, lifting the trophy in 2000 and 2004, while Slovenia have never taken part in the tournament before. “I wasn’t happy with the draw; it made Colombia seem even further away,” Dobovicnik recalled. “There’s no doubt we would have had a better chance against any other team.”

It sounded as if the coach had thrown in the towel before the first leg even kicked off. Although Slovenia's performances have become increasingly assured over the past few years, qualifying for every UEFA Futsal EURO since 2010, the prospect of taking on the seven-time European champions seemed anything but appealing.

The miracle begins Then just over two weeks ago, on 22 March, a major surprise unfolded as Slovenia won the first-leg of their play-off 1-0 thanks to a goal from Alen Fetic to put them on the brink of history. “That would be an absolute dream,” said the man who has been in charge of the national side since 2005 when asked to contemplate the looming possibility of a Futsal World Cup place, his voice a clear mix of euphoria and apprehension. But just how did this shock come about?

“We played very well in the first half,” Dobovicnik reflected. “After half-time we had a very dependable goalkeeper and a bit of luck.” Despite this remarkable turn of events, the coach remained modest, almost meek, as he added: “We know our level, but we also know what Spain are capable of. We know they can score more than one goal.”

Now it is up to the three-time Slovenian champion to prepare his team for the formidable task ahead of them. Selecting a squad has already proved difficult, with several key players injured ahead of the first leg. “I’ve never had so many problems putting a side together since I became coach,” he explained wistfully, before expressing his one wish for the decisive encounter on Tuesday 12 April: “I hope everyone stays fit.”

Slovenia on the up Dobovicnik’s team will need to push themselves to their limit and beyond when the big day arrives, and will know that only a concerted effort will enable them to deny the overwhelming favourites. “We need to play exactly the same way in the second leg as we did in the first half of the first leg,” he said. Although Futsal World Cup qualification is Slovenia’s ultimate goal, their coach refuses to put his players under pressure.

“Our aim is to give it our best and excel ourselves,” he explained. “I’ll be satisfied if we can do that, no matter what the result.” Dobovicnik believes that even a defeat will be an experience “we can learn from” – something that will be vital for a coach who has led the national team for more than ten years and has done much to establish futsal in this corner of Eastern Europe.

With the Futsal EURO set to take place in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana just two years from now, the sport is already the focus of increasing media attention. The national team’s first-leg victory over Spain caused a sensation, leaving the nation with baited breath ahead of the return leg. Another win and a ticket to Colombia would thrust Dobovicnik and his charges even further into the spotlight.

Despite his modesty, the national coach is also optimistic about the challenge ahead and is banking on the solidarity and positive atmosphere within his team, saying: “We always have a great time together!” He is now 40 minutes of fierce competition away from being able to share more fantastic experiences with his players in South America – regardless of whether or not the draw goes his way.