Zlatko Zahovič's fame transcended the realms of football in Slovenia, where he remains the nation's most-capped player with 80 appearances. These days the former FC Porto and SL Benfica schemer is held in particular esteem at NK Maribor, where he acts – with shrewd diligence – as director of football.
The 42-year-old took up the position in 2007 and has since witnessed his home-town club make waves in Europe. Having qualified for the 2011/12 UEFA Europa League group stage and repeated the trick last term, the 11-time Slovenian champions are embarking on their third consecutive continental campaign – an achievement attributed to a financially viable structure put in place by Zahovič and a hard-work ethos that pervades the club.
"Of course, in football success does not come overnight. In just a few years we have managed to recruit some outstanding professionals across all areas of the club, who are committed and focused in their work," explained Zahovič. "Not only have all the players and management hit their targets, but a lot of credit must go to those who work in administration, marketing and the media. Everyone has a winning mentality."
Continually punching above their weight in the UEFA competitions has been no mean feat for a side operating a shoestring budget, whose prized assets are quickly snaffled by Europe's more illustrious names. "It is our lack of funds that separates us from other teams. Every year we are forced to sell our most talented players to balance the books, and this has not been easy. It makes it very difficult to build a team for the future, but this is the reality," Zahovič told UEFA.com.
"We educate our players well and have excellent coaches at youth level, enabling us to sell players and make decent profits. We improve the quality of our players every year. There are very few clubs in Europe who are so strong financially that they can keep their best players while adding to their squad by signing established internationals," he added.
FC Viktoria Plzeň stand between Maribor and a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time since 1999/2000. Victory would represent "a great reward for the club's efforts" according to Zahovič, who is nonetheless staying grounded. "Our business and the fate of the club will not be decided by these two games," he added ahead of the first leg in the Czech Republic on Tuesday.