By Martin Pavcnik
Few would doubt that Slovenia's recent run in international football has been close to remarkable.
Pool of talent
Less than a decade after entering international football with a friendly against Croatia in 1991, following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, they qualified for UEFA EURO 2000™ by beating Ukraine in a play-off. Four years on, the smallest country to qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals are ready to meet Croatia again over two legs to attempt to reach their third consecutive major tournament, having had their pool of talent reinvigorated by Nastja Ceh.
Ceh has certainly not been a slouch in chasing honours. As a teenager he joined NK Maribor from NK Drava, and soon won his first Slovenian championship. The skilful midfield player soon took his tally of titles to five, but his talent was always likely to attract foreign interest and Belgian side Club Brugge KV swooped in 2001.
He soon brought his winning touch to Brugge. In his first season they won the Belgian Cup, and the following year he found the form of his career as Brugge took the championship. He began this season by playing a crucial role in the victory over BV Borussia Dortmund that took Brugge into the UEFA Champions League group stage, scoring both in the first leg and the decisive penalty shoot-out.
Regular Slovenia role
Ceh has also done his bit for the national team. A goal on your debut is always a good start, and Ceh did just that for Slovenia on 6 October 2001, scoring twice in the first 31 minutes against the Faroe Islands, the first a magnificent free-kick, as they clinched a place in the play-offs for the World Cup with a 3-0 win. He came on twice as a substitute in Korea/Japan, but it was in Slovenia's UEFA EURO 2004™ campaign that Ceh found a regular role under former Maribor coach Bojan Prašnikar.
Building a team around Zlatko Zahovic, Ermin Šiljak and Ceh, Prašnikar led Slovenia to their third consecutive play-offs, pipping Israel, Cyprus and Malta in a group dominated by holders France. Ceh himself chipped in with two vital goals, most crucially the volleyed clincher in the 3-1 win at home to Israel, having previously scored in a stunning individual performance as Cyprus were seen off 4-1.
So now Croatia - a nation Slovenia have never beaten - await over two legs in Zagreb and Ljubljana. Ceh, who has recovered from a chest injury, will again be a major player as he comes up against club colleague Tomislav Butina in the opposition goal. Few players deserve their place on the Portuguese stage more.
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