Love Letters To The European Union: Let’s All Meet Up at Euro 2000

To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week, Central Europe awaits, and the home of brown bears, beekeepers and Lake Bled. In a country famed for its natural beauty, you can sometimes struggle to see the forest for the trees. It’s Slovenia.

 

The Player: Zlatko Zahovic

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Rather than long beards, daft hats and Jeremy Clarkson-endorsed Dad Rock, Slovenia’s ‘ZZ Top’ was best known for three things: dazzling footwork, an eye for goal, and a stinking attitude. When he wasn’t starting an argument in an empty room, Zlatko Zahovic was busy becoming the first great Slovenian footballer since the country’s independence from Yugoslavia, and remains the nation’s top goalscorer. 

Born in Maribor in 1971 and a keen chess player in his youth, Zahovic was snapped up by NK Maribor as a precocious eight year old, before joining neighbours Kovinar Maribor to take his first steps in professional football. The youngster’s big break came in 1989 when, as an eighteen year old, Yugoslavian giants FK Partizan snapped the attacking midfielder up, and slowly integrated him into the first team in Belgrade. In his third season, fifteen appearances and three goals helped the Crno-beli to the 92/93 championship, and alerted Bojan Prašnikar, head coach of the newly established Slovenia national team, to his talent. In only their second game since gaining independence, Zahovic made his international debut.

By now, clubs across Europe had been made aware of this exciting young talent, and Vitória de Guimarães were the unlikely winners of the race for his signature, with the playmaker spending three seasons in the north of Portugal, helping Os Conquistadores to the UEFA Cup twice. It wasn’t long before one of the giants of the Primera Liga swooped in to prize Zahovic away, and in 1996 Porto did just that, making the playmaker a fulcrum of their attack, and continuing their dominance of Portugal with three league titles on the spin during the most productive period of the midfielder’s career.

By 1999, Zahovic’s reputation was at its peak. A multiple title-winner in Portugal, and among the top scorers in the Champions League, it came as a surprise that Greek giants Olympiacos were his next destination, with The Legend shelling out an unprecedented £10m for the Slovenian’s services. When they could get him on the pitch, he repaid that faith, serving up a goal every other game as the side romped to another Superleague title. Sadly, his time in Greece was marred by disciplinary issues, with big fines and suspensions being dished out for his criticism of coach Alberto Bigon. It wouldn’t be the last time he would clash with an authority figure.

The 1999/00 season would at least end in personal triumph for ZZ Top, as he led Slovenia to their first major tournament as an independent nation, finishing top-scorer in Group 2 with eight goals, and netting in the play-offs to help his country reach Euro 2000 in Belgium and the Netherlands. Though unable to escape the group at the final tournament, a creditable showing from Slovenia saw Zahovic net three more goals on his way to a total of thirty-five for the national team; enough to convince Valencia to end his Greek tragedy with a £5.5m bid.

His solitary season at the Mestalla would see a memorable run to the Champions League final end in calamity, as the Slovenian missed his penalty in the shootout against Bayern Munich, which the Germans would go on to win 5-4. With first-team opportunities at a premium in Spain, and Zahovic’s relationship with coach Hector Cuper soured by a spat over playing time, the fleet-footed midfielder returned to Portugal, in a controversial move to former club Porto’s great rivals Benfica. Across three seasons, Zahovic became a fans’ favourite at the Estadio da Luz, helping the Eagles to the Taca de Portugal in 2004, before picking up his fourth Primera Liga winners medal in 2005.

A second international tournament with Slovenia arrived in 2002, as the nation qualified for its first World Cup thanks to four Zahovic goals in qualifying. The tournament itself would be a shortlived experience for Slovenia’s best player however, as a very public falling out with coach Srečko Katanec following his substitution in the opening group game against Spain led to the playmaker being sent home in disgrace. Without him, Slovenia lost all three games and finished bottom of the group.

The curtain came down on Zahovic’s international career in a friendly against Switzerland in 2004, with the player retiring from football altogether just a year later. Since 2007 he has been Director of Football at NK Maribor. As naturally talented as any player to have emerged from the Balkans, Zlatko Zahovic will perhaps best be remembered for his refusal to kowtow to authority. He was, to paraphrase the Super Furry Animals, a man that didn’t give a fuck.

 

The Game: Yugoslavia 3-3 Slovenia, 2000

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The death of leader Tito in 1980 was  the catalyst required to spur Slovenia to claim independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. An economy that had been growing rapidly since the 1950s found itself under more and more pressure to prop up the failing Yugoslavian administration, an in September 1989 the introduction of parliamentary democracy for the state of Slovenia was passed, setting the wheels in motion for a vote for independence the following year. By the summer of 1992, the sovereign nation of Slovenia had gained recognition from the European Union and United Nations, and could finally begin life as a country recognised in its own right.

Before its foundations had begun to come crashing down around it, Yugoslavia had been building one of the most talented young teams in international football. Able to pluck the brightest prospects from modern day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia, Yugoslavia had lifted the 1987 Youth World Championship, and reached the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup. The penalty-shootout defeat to Argentina in Florence would be the final act of the Socialist Republic at a major international tournament, as the nation were banned from competing at Euro ’92 and World Cup ’94, and would only return to the fold in 1998 as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Their final tournament before being rechristened as Serbia and Montenegro would be Euro 2000.

The tournament ban for Yugoslavia in the early-nineties would all but spell the end of the Ljubljana-born midfielder Srečko Katanec’s international career. Making three appearances at Italia ’90, Katanec would only make one FIFA-recognised appearence for Slovenia after the nation’s independence before hanging up his boots, but a move into management offered a second crack of the whip for the former Sampdoria and VfB Stuttgart stopper. Initially charged with overseeing the development of the nation’s under-21s, Katanec earned his stripes in the Slovenian top flight with Gorica, before being given the top job at international level. It promised to be an uphill task.

Though Slovenia had previously produced top level footballers, most notably former Bayern Munich midfielder Branko Oblak and Eintracht Braunschweig forward Danilo Popivoda, the quality available to the nation upon their independence was not sufficient enough to mount a serious challenge for major tournament qualification. During the Euro ’96 campaign, the first time Slovenia were eligible to compete, a heartening draw with Italy and an impressive victory over Ukraine were the highlights of a difficult campaign, and only the feckless Estonians prevented the nation finishing bottom of the group. A frankly hopeless attempt at reaching France ’98 offered a humbling reality check of how far the nation had to go before they could even contemplate reaching a major finals, as one point from eight games saw them finish rock bottom.

Enter Katanec. By the time the 35 year old had taken the reigns with the national team, star man Zlatko Zahovic had stepped into the peak of his career and, for a brief time at least, the young coach was able to harness his most volatile talent. With a kinder draw than the previous two tournaments, Slovenia were able to string together a run of five wins from six games that saw them leapfrog a stuttering Greece into second place. By the time the Greeks ran riot in Maribor with a 3-0 win, Slovenia had already secured a play-off place.

Katanec’s team had developed a knack of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat during the group stage of qualifying, taking five of their seventeen points from losing positions. In the play-off with the Ukraine, they were at it again. A talented Ukrainian side, built around Dynamo Kiev’s dominant squad of the late-nineties, took the lead in the first leg in Ljubljana, only for Zahovic and Mile Ačimovič to turn the tie on its head. In Kiev, Sergei Rebrov’s 68th minute penalty looked like taking the Yellow-Blue to the tournament on away goals before another late strike, this time from Miran Pavlin, secured Slovenia’s place at Euro 2000.

The draw in Nyom on the 12th December 1999 was hotly anticipated by Slovenia and their supporters, and saw them drawn into a tough group against Spain and Norway, who they’d lost to twice during qualifying. It was the third nation drawn out of the hat that provoked the biggest reaction however, as Slovenia’s first tournament game would be against the former motherland, Yugoslavia.

It turned out to be a European Championship classic. In the first meeting between the sides since Slovenia’s independence, it was the younger nation that took the game by the scruff of the neck. Though Yugoslavia weren’t quite the side they had been ten years earlier, they still boasted plenty of Europe’s top players, with Lazio’s Sinisa Mihajlovic at full-back, a revitalised Savo Milosevic up front, and a trio of European Cup winners in Vladimir Jugović, Predrag Mijatović, and Dragan Stojković. Slovenia, though, refused to be overawed, attacking their experienced opponents from the off, with little reward.

A scrappy opening quarter burst into life in the 23rd minute, as Aleš Čeh’s cross from deep was met by a stooping header from Zahovic that grazed the fingertips of Ivica Kralj before nestling into the bottom corner. Ten minutes later, the #10 should have doubled the underdogs’ lead. Played through one-on-one with Kralj, Zahovic hesitated for a split-second, allowing the ‘keeper to smother his effort on goal. As the frantic first half came to a close, Slovenia went in with something to hold on to.

Those expecting Slovenia to sit deep and soak up the pressure in the second half were mistaken as, seven minutes after the break and with Yugoslavia readjusting to the introduction of Milosevic from the bench, Zahovic floated a free-kick into the penalty area, and Pavlin buried his header into the top corner. This major tournament lark was proving easier than expected. Yugoslavia looked shellshocked, none more so than Mihajlovic who, five minutes later, inexplicably gifted the ball to Zahovic on the edge of the area, and this time the playmaker made no mistake, cooly slotting his effort over Kralj. Big Brother was on the brink of humiliation.

Things went from bad to worse for Mihajlovic, as a characteristic slice of headloss saw him shove Sašo Udovič to the ground and pick up his second yellow of the match. With a three-goal deficit and down to ten men, Yugoslavia could only pray for the final whistle. But rather than crumble, the dismissal of their influential full-back spurred Vujadin Boškov’s team into action. Any Slovenian fans reading might want to look away now.

Seven minutes after losing a man, Yugoslavia gained a goal back. Mijatovic hooked a corner back towards the six yard box for Miroslav Djukic to knock on, and Milosevic was on hand to tap home from two yards. Three minutes later, Ljubinko Drulović found himself unmarked on the edge of the box and drove a shot through a cluster of white shirts and past the unsighted Mladen Dabanovič. The energy visibly drained out of the Slovenian players, and with seventeen minutes left the equaliser looked inevitable.

It arrived in double-quick time. Katanec’s side were able to hold on for just three more minutes, before the two goalscorers combined with Drulović  driving into the area and squaring for Milosevic to tap in his second of the game and level the scores. All of Slovenia’s hard work had been undone in just six minutes by a ruthless Yugoslavia side. Though they had at least taken part in an early contender for Game of the Tournament.

The remainder of Slovenia’s Euro 2000 odyssey failed to reach the heights of Zahovic’s second goal in Charleroi, with defeat to Spain and a goalless draw against Norway condemning to fourth place in the group. The exhilarating draw with Yugoslavia would also be bettered later in the group stage, as their neighbours succumbed to an incredible 4-3 defeat against Spain that saw La Roja score twice in stoppage time.

Though it may have ended in heartbreak, Slovenia’s summer in Belgium and the Netherlands remains a watershed moment in the nation’s sporting history, best remembered for the game in which they stood up to Big Brother with their chests puffed out and their heads held high and proved they could stand on their own two feet.

 

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