WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND // Slovenia captain Robert Koren isn't afraid of World Cup group rivals England and United States, setting a target for his team to advance to the knockout round in South Africa. The Slovenes went home from the 2002 World Cup in disarray after three straight defeats a damaging fallout between the coach and the team's best player. But this Slovenia team, Koren said, is well organised, does not rely on a big star and thrives on being the underdog.
After all, Slovenia wasn't even supposed to beat Russia in the play-offs. "A few months back when we met Russia in the play-offs, everyone was saying Slovenia were the underdogs. Slovenia will lose this game. Russia is in the World Cup," Koren said. "But, at the end of the day, we are in the World Cup, the Russians aren't and we deserved that. "It's difficult to say what is realistic to expect at the World Cup but we are full of confidence. The last seven games we played together we won six of them. We have a great team spirit, we are really good friends and we do everything for each other on the field and that's the main thing. We will up for this challenge and our target is to go through the group stage."
Slovenia face another Group C underdog, Algeria, in their first game, and then face the two teams who are expected to make the last 16, the United States and England. A victory over the Algerians in Polokwane on June 13 will give the nation with a population of only two million its first ever World Cup points and that, Koren said, will boost confidence ahead of the tougher games to follow. "England is the favourite (in the group) and people are saying that USA is the second favourite," the midfielder said. "But we are not bothered about these things. We will go into each game, try to win it and try to get points."
Although Koren is proud to be captain and joked that he is the star of the team, he stressed that this Slovenia lineup won't be brushed aside in the same way the 2002 squad did when coach Srecko Katanec fell out with Zlatko Zahovic and sent the player home after the team's opening game. "It was a massive thing for our country for the national team to get into the World Cup (in 2002) and some bad things happened down there. First of all, we didn't get the right results and that was a big disappointment because everyone expected that we would at least get some points," Koren said. "There were problems in the national team between the manager and the players and that was no good for anyone.
"Now it's completely different. Before, we had one star in the team, Zahovic was our best player. Now we are trying to play more as a team than have one star in the team. We are really good friends and developing a team spirit. We are certain that the same things will not happen and we just want to show people that we are good enough and we want to get through the group stage and get enough points."
Koren, whose goals and consistent performances have helped West Bromwich Albion gain promotion to the Premier League, has played against many of the England players before, both with the national team in a 2-1 loss at Wembley and when West Brom last made it to the top flight two seasons ago. "It's a massive game not just for me but for everybody in our team. Of course, I play here in England, so it's special for me," he said. "But when you're playing football you're not thinking this way at all. We will stick with our plan and every player wants to play his part. We will play 11 against 11 and we will try to do our best.
"But of course it will help me a lot that I am playing in England and I will try to use my experience to help the rest of the team and give the manager some information." * AP