Soccer - Slovenia dream the impossible dream
LJUBLJANA, Jun 13, 2000 -- (Reuters) Coach Srecko Katanec is dreaming an impossible dream ahead of Slovenia's debut in the European championship finals against Yugoslavia.
Katanec hopes his team can beat their former compatriots - that is by no means impossible - and wants Tuesday's group C match in Charleroi to be treated simply as a game of football.
In the tortured world of Balkan politics, that is about as likely as Slovenia winning the title.
"It will be a little strange but it must stay as a game without politics or other things interfering," said Katanec, a former Yugoslav international defender.
Slovenia v Yugoslavia has an inescapable political edge and Vujadin Boskov, the 68-year-old Yugoslav coach, will have nothing to do with the idealism of Katanec, a man 30 years his junior whom he once coached at Sampdoria.
Belgrade has been hard hit by sanctions over the past decade, most recently in protest at the actions of Serb and Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.
The knock-on effect for Boskov's band of ageing expatriates, boosted by a few home-based players, has been a lack of competitive matches with European rivals who have refused to play them in pre-tournament friendlies.
The Yugoslavs warmed up with an Asian tour that backfired when the side lost 4-2 to a Hong Kong XI at the start of the month and returned to Europe tired and disunited.
Boskov believes his country's political difficulties will be a useful spur to his side, whose quality is undeniable thanks to the likes of Predrag Mijatovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic.
"Personally I think this can be stimulating. In this situation our players can show that we don't deserve this political pressure we have all the time," he said.
Slovenia, who became an independent nation after breaking away from Yugoslavia, know they are the tournament's wide outsiders and are treating their first game as a cup final.
"For me, the game against Yugoslavia is the biggest in the tournament," said midfielder Milenko Acimovic.
SOLO TALENT AND TEAM SPIRIT
Acimovic was the scorer of an extraordinary goal from near the halfway line six minutes from time in the first leg of the qualifying play-offs against Ukraine, another team Slovenia were not supposed to beat.
Slovenia's star in a team without familiar names is striker Zlatko Zahovic, a player with a keen sense of his own worth and scorer of 21 goals in 45 appearances.
"As a team we feel we are a little bit better than they are," said Zahovic. "They have a lot of individuals, we are a team and that could be to our advantage."
Slovenia, the smallest nation to appear in the finals, have already shown many times they can punch above their weight.
In a friendly against world champions France in April they lost 3-2 in injury time after leading 2-0.
"We will try to score," says Katanec. "But we are not scared to lose 4-0 or 5-0."