As European football continues its recovery from the continent-wide shutdown last spring, a story of positivity and success in adversity shines out of Slovenia.
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If you are hoping for signs that European football will continue its steady recovery from an extraordinary 2020 this year, then look no further than Slovenia.
From co-hosting the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in March and June to successfully completing the first half of its domestic season, the national game has plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about 2021.
However, the strongest evidence of Slovenian football's resilience came last summer from the humble surroundings of third-division club Korotan Prevalje’s training ground – venue for a football camp that attracted more than 80 children aged from five to 15.
Successfully adapting to restrictions
While grassroots football is currently on pause in Slovenia and most other European countries, the event offered proof that it is possible to get children quickly back on the pitch while respecting health and safety regulations.
The camp was one of a series of special activities organised to give Slovenian youngsters the chance to safely play football again after months of living in lockdown.
"Even with problems surrounding the COVID-19 epidemic, we figured out organisational steps required to make it all happen and to give players [an experience] they deserved," explained Korotan Prevalje club secretary, Jan Küzma. A highlight of the camp was the visit of Slovenian national team coach Matjaž Kek and former Maribor coach Sergej Jakirovic, who spent time talking with the children and posing for photos with their young fans.
"We were proud to present the manager of our national team Matjaž Kek, along with Sergej Jakirovic, a former player of Korotan Prevalje, who at the time was manager of Maribor," said Küzma. "Both were able to answer questions and offer insight into the life of professional footballers and established coaches in an interview, hosted by Tomaž Ranc, UEFA’s Media Committee member from Slovenia.
"Each year we try to include content like this in order to educate our young base of footballers and give them more to talk and think about – not just what happens on the pitch, but also what goes on alongside the beautiful game."
Variety proves popular
The camp was Korotan Prevalje's fifth such annual event, and despite the pandemic, it continues to go from strength to strength.
"We try to improve it each year with new ideas and a fresh outlook," said Tin Küzma, head of the club’s football academy. "Our main goals are promoting football and working on sporting versatility, but of course with a focus on football. Training sessions are organised around eight stations where players work on technique, tactics and especially versatile movements and skills.
"We have also integrated different activities in sessions – we tried out slackline, teqball, acrobatics, beach football and disc golf, and found that our approach, which is not strictly football-oriented, is very motivational for the players."
Anticipation high for Under-21 festival
Slovenia coach Kek will be among those keeping a close eye on the UEFA European U21 Championship, which will take place in a unique format, with games split between Slovenia and Hungary. The 6 June final will be played in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, the home city of UEFA president, Aleksander Čeferin.
"The tournament is something positive, that brings joy," Mr Čeferin said. "It's a great tournament, Under-21 players are already superstars around the world and this is serious football. The best players in the world, like Luís Figo, Xavi, Totti, all became stars at the finals of the U21 EURO.
"It should be a joy, a celebration to make the event a proper festival of football. I am sure this event will be a boost for youth football."
As hosts, Slovenia qualify automatically for their U21 EURO debut and will play in Group B with Spain, Italy and Czech Republic during the last week of March.
Coach Milenko Ačimovič accepts that his team will face a big challenge to progress to the knockout phase scheduled to start two months later.
"We all know what Spain and Italy represent in football, especially at youth level," he said. "They regularly win championships or at least play in the finals. I also know the Czech team quite well. I've seen quite a few of their matches and I know what we are up against. All three matches will be very, very hard."
Regardless of results, there will be immense pride across Slovenia that the country is even hosting such a prestigious event, the first national team finals since the beginning of the pandemic.
"As a Slovenian national team player, I am very proud that such a big tournament can be played in Slovenia," said Slovenia’s captain and goalkeeper Jan Oblak. "I am sure that a few years ago nobody would have even imagined this could happen."