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Dawn of a golden age

The new millennium has brought a golden era for Slovenian football.

Dawn of a golden age
Dawn of a golden age ©Getty Images

The Football Association of Slovenia (Nogometna zveza Slovenije or NZS) has its origins in the Ljubljana Football Association, founded on 23 April 1920. This forerunner of the NZS organised footballing activities in the country, including a national championship and cups, under the wider authority of the Yugoslav Football Association (Fudbalski Savez Jugoslavije or FSJ). The national team also debuted during this period, losing 5-0 to a French Olympic side led by Jules Rimet.

In 1935 the two most established clubs from the capital city Ljubljana, FC Ilirija and FC Primorje, merged for financial reasons to become SC Ljubljana and attract the best Slovenian players. This club participated in the federal Yugoslavian First League. Along with NK Maribor and NK Celje, they also played matches against foreign opposition, from Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The years after World War Two were dedicated to restructuring the game. The NZS was formed in May 1948, albeit under the FSJ aegis, and had particular responsibility for local referees and coaches with specific departments for each. The most successful Slovenian club were NK Olimpija Ljubljana, who lost the 1970 Yugoslavian Cup final to FK Crvena zvezda. Olimpija nonetheless entered the European Cup Winners' Cup, falling to SL Benfica in the first round. Other well-known teams were Maribor, NK Rudar Velenje and ND Mura 05 as well as Ljubljana sides ND Slovan and NK Svoboda.

By the mid-1980s a Slovenian team was facing representative sides from the other Yugoslavian republics in friendly matches. Slovenia had been producing excellent players for the Yugoslavia national squad, including Danilo Popivoda, Brane Oblak, Marko Elsner and Srečko Katanec.

The most historic chapter in Slovenia's football story unfolded in the 1990s. Following the country's declaration of independence in June 1991, an inaugural national championship started, comprising Slovenian clubs that had participated in the Yugoslavian first, second and third divisions. Another landmark was attained on 3 June 1992 when an independent Slovenia made their national-team debut in a 1-1 draw with Estonia in Tallinn.

That same year the NZS was admitted to UEFA and FIFA, heralding the country's involvement in the UEFA European Championship qualifiers for EURO '96. The team took their competitive bow in a 1-1 home draw with Italy, FIFA World Cup runners-up, in Maribor on 7 September 1994. Sašo Udovič scored Slovenia's goal.

Two years later the NZS moved into its own headquarters. The top flight, or First League (Prva Liga), was reorganised into a 12-team championship for the 1998/99 campaign, before being reduced to ten clubs in 2005.

The new millennium brought golden days. With Katanec as coach, Slovenia qualified for UEFA EURO 2000. They overcame Ukraine in a qualifying play-off before drawing with Yugoslavia and Norway, and losing narrowly to Spain in their group in the Low Countries. Maribor also performed creditably by becoming the nation's first UEFA Champions League representative, appearing in the 1999/2000 first group stage.

With players such as Zlatko Zahovič showing star quality, further progress was made with qualification for the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, again via the play-offs, with victory against Romania. However, the team fell at the play-off hurdle in UEFA EURO 2004 qualifying, which precipitated the international retirement of Zahovič.

Slovenia, a nation of about two million people, would next experience a major championship in South Africa 2010. Under coach Matjaž Kek, they navigated a World Cup qualifying group containing eventual winners Slovakia, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland and San Marino. Kek's men won their last four games to earn second place and a play-off against seeded Russia. The hosts led 2-0 in Moscow until Nejc Pečnik struck on 88 minutes. Slovenia won the return leg through Zlatko Dedič's solitary effort at Maribor's Ljudski vrt to advance on away goals.

In September 2016, Slovenia was honoured when the NZS president Aleksander  Čeferin was elected as UEFA's seventh president at the body's Extraordinary Congress in Athens. He had served at the helm of the Slovenian association since 2011, and automatically became a FIFA vice-president when he was elected by UEFA'd member associations. 


Radenko Mijatović

Radenko Mijatović
Radenko Mijatović©NZS

Nationality: Slovenian
Date of birth:
16 November 1963
Association president since: 2016

• Radenko Mijatović was elected president of the Football Association of Slovenia (NZS) at the general assembly in December 2016. Mijatović was born in the small town of Radjići in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and first came to Slovenia during his military service. He later returned during the 1980s, which were his most active football years. He played for several clubs, and then moved to Austria for eight years, where he played for numerous Austrian lower league teams.

• After his playing career, he remained loyal to football through official roles. At first, he was a referee, both in football as well as futsal, and became an international FIFA futsal referee. From 2009, he served as an NZS vice-president, executive committee member and chairman of the association’s professional football committee. He was also a member of the NZS referees’ committee, and was head of referee assessor education, as well as an NZS referee assessor.

• Mijatović also has an interesting professional path outside of football. He started in the Valkarton concern with various assignments, and eventually became president of the board, leading the concern successfully for eleven years. Currently he is a member of the board at Cetis Celje.

General secretary 

Martin Koželj

Martin Koželj
Martin Koželj©NZS

Nationality: Slovenian
Date of birth: 1 November 1978
Association general secretary since: August 2018

Martin Koželj started his career in international and domestic football in the area of security and integrity, the area which focuses on creating a fair environment in which football can prosper.

In the last year before taking over as the Football Association of Slovenia (NZS) general secretary, Koželj actively focused on the education of players, officials, club officials and coaches in the field of integrity, which was essential for achieving goals in the area he was managing. Other than being an intermediary between football constituents and government institutions, Koželj was also in charge of Information exchange between government institutions, UEFA and Slovenian football constituents.

Before starting a professional career in football, Koželj, who has a Bachelor’s degree in economics, worked in the Slovenian police force. He took the knowledge and experience of working with people and leading task forces from his previous career, and carried it into the football environment, where he is a devout advocate of good relationships between the employees, team work and the importance of personal development for individuals working within a national association.
Koželj continues the work of his predecessors through the reinforcement of cooperation between UEFA and FIFA and the NZS, as well as regional football associations, clubs, referees, coaches and other football stakeholders.