Currently participating in their third major tournament in ten years, Slovenia have upset the odds on several occasions in their young history and the success of the national team may continue courtesy of a flourishing grassroots programme.
Formed in 1992 after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the Football Association of Slovenia (NZS) is doing its utmost to ensure that its appearances at the 2002 and 2010 FIFA World Cups as well as UEFA EURO 2000 are no one-offs resulting from a golden generation. Consequently it is focusing on the next wave of talented youngsters, with wide-sweeping grassroots initiatives appealing to children as young as two.
"I think the grassroots level is very important for Slovenian football," NZS grassroots director Miloš Rus told the UEFA Training Ground. "The success we have achieved recently shows us we are on the right road and that we have done a great job over the last two or three years. Three years ago we had only 25,000 registered players and today we have almost 33,000, which means the schemes are clearly having an effect."
The NZS' most effective initiatives include the I Love to Play Football competitions for eight to ten-year-olds at schools and clubs each winter; the Children's Football School of Ljubljana which involves training and competitions for 1,200 youngsters across 45 elementary schools; the Special Olympics of Slovenia six-a-side football league for the disabled; and the Football Fun project.
In addition, Football Fun events, which often comprise three-a-side matches for Under-8s and skill-based activities – with the emphasis always on fun and fair play – are held over weekends in town squares throughout Slovenia. During the 2008/09 season these reached out to more than 1,700 children.
Football Fun was also a key feature of the inaugural UEFA Grassroots Day in Slovenia, in the week leading up to the UEFA Champions League final on 22 May. Speaking about the Football Fun event staged in Postojna, in the west of the country, Rus said: "We organised a special event for a special day with more than 200 children involved – kids from seven different schools from the region. They took part in football activities, but most of all we hope they enjoyed a special day for football.
"This event was organised by the Football Association of Slovenia along with other sports agencies that work with us, and was one of nine similar events organised all over the country," continued Rus. "Many other events were also arranged and I think altogether more than 10,000 people in Slovenia participated in Grassroots Day. It is such a great opportunity to organise events like this on a day when kids, parents and teachers come together and enjoy football."
Slovenia's work in the grassroots football field is intense and their nationwide grassroots programme is progressing, with an application by the NZS for an additional star in UEFA's Grassroots Charter presently being evaluated by UEFA's expert panel. The charter, created in 2004, represents an endorsement of national associations' grassroots programmes. Of the application, Rus added: "I think this additional star would prove to everyone we are on the right road and we are doing the right things and have all possibilities to reach the highest levels."
Slovenian football is certainly on the up, with a new €80m national stadium with a capacity of 16,000 due to open in September. Moreover, thanks to help from UEFA's HatTrick assistance scheme, a new national training centre and offices for the NZS are being built, set for completion in 2012. A training facility in Ptuj, costing €3.5m, is already open, while 30 mini-pitches are being constructed to supplement the 40 installed throughout the country before 2008.
"I think Slovenia really has a bright future with all the people now working on grassroots football, such as the many coaches and volunteers involved. However, despite the success we have had in this area, we can do more to improve it even further," promised Rus.
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