The domestic game in Poland and Ukraine, joint hosts for UEFA EURO 2012 next summer, is increasingly in the spotlight in the run-up to the continental showdown.
In Poland, Wisla Krakow recently sealed the 2010/11 league title, with a pivotal role played by skilled midfielder Andraz Kirm. The official slogan of the 2012 tournament is 'Creating History Together', but apart from celebrating a maiden Ekstraklasa triumph, Kirm is a step ahead of most of his team-mates in that he has already had a hand in creating history.
He did this by appearing for Slovenia at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "It was an amazing experience for all the players, but especially for our small country," the Ljubljana-born midfielder exclusively told FIFA.com. "It was a massive success, and every player will be a little more confident after playing at a tournament like that. It's got to be a boost when you know you were good enough to play at a World Cup. A number of our players were and still are very young, so the experience is bound to help them later in their careers."
In contrast to Slovenia’s first tilt at the FIFA World Cup finals in 2002, when the squad packed for home after defeats in all three of their group matches, Slovenia were poised to make the Round of 16 last summer until a last-gasp USA strike against Algeria sent them tumbling out of the tournament. "We were deeply disappointed," admitted Kirm, "but after a couple of nights to sleep it off we were satisfied instead and proud of what we’d achieved. We gave it our best shot. It was a first World Cup for the current team."
All options open
The stats underline Kirm’s crucial contribution to the Slovenes’ success. The midfield maestro appeared in all 12 FIFA World Cup qualifying fixtures, and in all three games in South Africa. That points to the player’s consistently good form, but also emphasies the faith placed in him by coach Matjaz Kek, who handed the player his first senior cap on taking the national coaching hot seat in 2007, and has kept calling him up ever since.
"I started my career in the national team under him. He gave me a chance, and I took it. I’m extremely grateful to him,” Kirm stated. "I don’t regard myself as a leader, as we have other older and more experienced players, but I still have an important role in the team."
It was a massive success... It's got to be a boost when you know you were good enough to play at a World Cup.
Building on the combination of recent success, broader experience and increased self-assurance, Slovenia are now aiming to qualify for EURO 2012. Kirm is the only current Slovenia international playing his club football in one of the two host nations, so his motivation to succeed is even greater. "Our goal is a place at the EURO, and that’s what we’re all working towards. Anything’s possible, and we believe we can be there."
A rocky road lies ahead, however, as Slovenia are up against big-name opposition in the shape of Group C rivals Serbia and four-time FIFA World Cup winners Italy. Kirm has featured in all six of his country’s games so far, which have yielded a total of eight points. The Slovenes are second in the standings, ahead of the Serbs on goal difference, but both are already five points off undefeated Italy, who also have a game in hand.
"We could have done better," Kirm admitted. "We’ve lost matches we never should have lost, but we’re still right in it and need to be taking each game as it comes. We’ve got some tough fixtures coming up, but anything could happen. That's what the World Cup showed."
Dream of continental glory
The task ahead for Kek and his men is straightforward enough on paper. Victories are a must against the Faroes (3 June) and Estonia (2 September), before two do-or-die matches away to Italy on 6 September and at home to Serbia on 11 October. "Everyone knows Slovenia are good. We’re stronger and more experienced than in the past and we know just how to approach matches now. We don’t have the outstanding individuals, we work together as a team, and we succeed when we play as a team.”
However, before the national team’s potential tilt at glory in the summer of 2012, Kirm hopes to fulfil another dream, that of playing in Europe’s elite club competition. "Every player dreams of the Champions League, and I want to play in it too. Every kid watches the Champions League, as I did as a boy. So being a part of it definitely would be a dream come true."
However, hurdles lie in the way of that dream becoming reality, as the Polish champions have to qualify for the group stage. "We’re training well and we believe in ourselves. There’s good work being done by every player and the club as a whole. It's the only possible route to success,” the 26-year-old declared.