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Tiny Slovenia has big ambitions at World Cup

Robert Koren is Slovenia’s top playmaker who scored the only goal in Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Algeria.

Associated Press

Robert Koren is Slovenia’s top playmaker who scored the only goal in Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Algeria.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Its media information packet has a five-word motto on the cover: Never Judge Greatness by Size.

Slovenia, the smallest nation in the World Cup with a population of 2 million, is playing the United States, the largest nation at 310 million, today. And the Slovenians are determined to squash any notion that things are about to get easier for the Americans after Saturday's 1-1 tie against England.

Slovenia beat Algeria in its first game and has loftier goals. Known more for Alpine sports and gymnastics, Slovenia was a surprise qualifier after upsetting Russia in a European playoff.

A victory over the United States clinches a spot in the second round. The Americans would be eliminated with a loss. A tie keeps them in contention, and a victory puts them in great position entering their final game against Algeria.

"We are the smallest country, but we haven't come here as tourists," Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said Thursday. "We do respect the U.S. players. Their performance last year at the Confederations Cup (reaching the final) was excellent. But we do not stand in awe of them. We are not afraid of them."

With a victory and three points in hand, Slovenia doesn't have to go for broke. It could accept a tie, which means it might hang back and make things difficult for the U.S. attack. Slovenia is known for its compact, organized defense, the type of opponent that traditionally gives the United States trouble.

"Slovenia isn't going to be spectacular, but they're going to be a good, solid team. And they're going to be difficult to beat," U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said. "In theory, it seems easier because they don't have (stars such as England's) Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard. The reality is when you have a team that plays well together, it becomes very difficult to beat a team like that."

Slovenia's primary target is 6-foot-3 Milivoje Novakovic while most plays go through Robert Koren, who scored in Sunday's 1-0 win over Algeria.

"They do a good job of staying very tight and moving as a unit," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "But we've been in many of these types of games before, against teams that play in a similar way. Where you expect the game to be a tactical game, you look for ways to get an edge."

Although most Americans have probably never heard of Slovenia's players, U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said the team has the upmost respect for them and expects a scrappy game against a team that, in many ways, mirrors the Americans.

"We're not going to go into it taking anybody lightly just because the rest of the world doesn't know their names," Bocanegra said. "It's an important game for us."

Four years ago, the United States failed to advance out of group play. Donovan has been waiting to make up for that.

"I've always said … that we can compete with any team in the world, and we believe that," Donovan said. "What makes teams great is doing it three, four, five, six, seven times in a row.

"We haven't proven that we can do that yet. That's what we need to prove this time."

Tiny Slovenia has big ambitions at World Cup 06/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 6:55pm]
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