Slovenia making great strides

Proud hosts of the UEFA Futsal EURO, the Football Association of Slovenia (NZS) is working diligently to take the country's football forward at all levels, especially in getting young people to play, and is looking forward to the future with plenty of optimism.

To promote the Futsal EURO, 180 men, women and children passed a ball from Ljubljana city centre to the Stožice Arena, with Spanish superstar Miguelin starting the ride
To promote the Futsal EURO, 180 men, women and children passed a ball from Ljubljana city centre to the Stožice Arena, with Spanish superstar Miguelin starting the ride ©Sportida

These are exciting times for the Football Association of Slovenia (NZS). As well as hosting UEFA Futsal EURO 2018 in Ljubljana from 30 January to 10 February, the association has launched a series of programmes designed to enable all the country’s youngsters to play football, while its newly elected president has plans to develop the national league. With all this going on, and more besides, the NZS is running at full speed and looking to the future with confidence.

Emblazoned on the side of a municipal bus, a giant poster of Jan Oblak patrols the snowy streets of Ljubljana. The freezing temperatures of mid-November are making themselves felt and the first flakes of snow are falling on the city’s roofs and roads. Photographed in his yellow jersey, with its black-striped sleeves, and wearing a steely look on his face, the Slovenian keeper slowly weaves his way down the street, halting only for a red light or a bus stop – enough time for the locals to see that Oblak is not lending his image to promote the latest designs of a fashion brand but to support the breast cancer charity Europa Donna.

Despite being the superstar of the Slovenian national team, the Atlético goalkeeper remains a discreet young man who is in no way drawn to the spotlight. “Children really look up to Jan Oblak,” says NZS president Radenko Mijatović, confirming the player’s popularity. But despite his status, the tall, fair-haired keeper is known first and foremost for being a dedicated professional who is fully focused on his sporting career and who keeps his mind on the job.

“Jan is very strong mentally,” adds NZS technical director Matjaz Jaklić. “He always stays very calm, even if he’s playing in front of a million people.” Oblak deserves credit for his discretion and restraint, which stand in contrast to the need among many players of his age to seek continual media exposure.

Slovenian FA president Radenko Mijatović
Slovenian FA president Radenko Mijatović©NZS

Increased exposure is, however, the very commodity that the NZS president is keen to achieve for Slovenian football. Having taken the helm in 2016, following the election of the previous incumbent, Aleksander Čeferin, as UEFA president, Mijatović has made increasing NZS revenue from marketing, sponsorship and TV rights as one of his main goals. 

“People talk about football a lot before the national team’s games and the derbies between Olimpija Ljubljana and Maribor,” he explains, “but the rest of the time the sport still doesn’t get enough coverage in the media. We enjoy excellent relationships with our sponsors, but we need to do more when it comes to marketing and advertising the game.”

A figure has been put on these ambitious objectives, with the NZS hoping to increase sponsorship and advertising revenue by 10% each season by 2020. Another of the association’s goals is to raise its social media profile and to get its messages out to as wide an audience as possible. The foundations have already been laid, with the NZS now operating official accounts on all social media platforms. “We’re even on Snapchat,” says Mijatović, whose business-minded approach and determination to succeed shine through.

Born in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina at a time when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, Mijatović first went to Slovenia when he did his national service. He fell in love with the small country, which shares a border with Austria to the north and nestles between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea. So much so that he decided to stay there and embarked on a brief career as a footballer.

Lacking the talent to make a proper living on the pitch, Mijatović found a job at a cardboard factory, starting out on the factory floor. “I climbed my way up,” he says three decades on, in his suit and tie. He has done even better than that, having sat on the board of several companies before becoming vice-president of the NZS and then taking on the top job last year.

The final countdown to Futsal EURO 2018
After so many years spent shaking hands in business meetings and closing deals, Mijatović knows just how important it is to have dependable financial partners. And the NZS will have an excellent opportunity to show potential investors that it is a partner they can rely on when Futsal EURO 2018 comes to town from 30 January to 10 February next year. The matches will be played in the north of the Slovenian capital, where the old streets of the city centre give way to broad three-lane boulevards and where buildings are few and far between.

The Stožice Arena in Ljubljana hosts the Futsal EURO
The Stožice Arena in Ljubljana hosts the Futsal EURO©Sportida

It is there, just inside the ring road that runs around the city, that a huge ‘tortoiseshell’ can be found, rising tens of metres high, with undulating concrete and glass edges. The ‘tortoiseshell’ is the Stožice Arena, a vast multisports facility that also hosts basketball, volleyball and ice hockey matches, not to mention concerts by the likes of David Guetta, Elton John and Bob Dylan. 

Member of the Futsal EURO 2018 Office Daniel Videtić is revelling in the prospect of welcoming Europe’s finest futsal players: “The arena can seat more than 10,000 spectators and we hope it’s going to be full. To prepare for the tournament, we began working with UEFA very early on. We’ve been working on the project for nearly a year now, so we haven’t had to rush things. We’ve taken it step by step and everything has gone smoothly. We’re on track.”

To make sure as many spectators as possible turn up, Videtić has spent the last few months organising promotional events in the centre of the city. On 5 April, as winter gave way to spring, the NZS chose to mark the 300-days-to-go milestone by unveiling a large countdown clock on the banks of the Ljubljanica, the river that splits the capital in two.

Two months later, 180 players came together to form a human chain and play passes to each other all the way from the countdown clock to the Stožice Arena, 6km to the north. Lending some stardust to the event was Spanish futsal ace Miguelin, who had the honour playing the first pass, and the entire Slovenia futsal team. “It took them an hour to pass the ball all the way to the arena,” says a smiling Videtić as he recalls the occasion. “It was lovely.”

Slovenia's national futsal team
Slovenia's national futsal team©Sportida

The latest event to promote the tournament was the final draw, staged in September in the magnificent surroundings of Ljubljana Castle, a small fortress built in the late 16th century on a hilltop overlooking the Slovenian capital. The assembled dignitaries included the UEFA president, Slovenia’s two-time Olympic skiing champion Tina Maze, and former footballers such as Milenko Acimović. The draw handed Slovenia an opening match with Serbia, who were also their first opponents at the previous Futsal EURO, held in Belgrade in 2016. 

All these events have been shared extensively on social media, while a media consultancy has been given the task of making videos for YouTube.

As he waits to see if Slovenia can get the better of Serbia, who reached the semi-finals on their home court, Mijatović is keen to draw attention to the ability of his association to stage international competitions: “The final round of the European Under-17 Championship was held in Slovenia in 2012. We’ve got great infrastructure and we’re used to organising tournaments here, which means we are well placed to host [international] competitions.”

Meanwhile, Videtić points to the country’s facilities and, above all, the popularity of the sport in Slovenia as factors that will help to guarantee the success of Futsal EURO 2018: “All our primary schools have indoor sports halls, which are used not just by schoolchildren. They’re also hired out to futsal clubs at the end of the school day. Everyone shares the facilities. There are 45 schools in Ljubljana alone and you can play with a futsal club at half of them.”

The NZS, Slovenia, the fans and the 12 participating teams have just a few weeks to wait before the Futsal EURO buzz hits the country’s largest sports arena and the action gets under way.

First-class facilities in place
The most striking sign of the NZS’s rude health can be found on the other side of Ljubljana’s ring road, 30km to the north to be precise. It is there, amid woodland and overlooked by the snowy peaks of the nearby Alps, that the national association has its new headquarters.

The Football Association of Slovenia's headquarters - opened in 2016
The Football Association of Slovenia's headquarters - opened in 2016©NZS/

A vast building with pristine white walls and large bay windows that afford a clear view of the interior, it stands next to three football pitches awaiting the next national team get-together. A little further in the distance can be seen a castle used by the government to host official receptions, while the only other neighbours in the vicinity are the guests of a luxury hotel situated a little over a kilometre to the east. It all means the staff of the NZS can work in total peace and quiet, and enjoy some stunning scenery to boot. 

Mijatović smiles as he recalls the days when the NZS had to share its former Ljubljana premises with a number of companies: “When we decided to move, we looked for locations in Ljubljana before deciding to build our own centre. It’s perfect. It’s right out in the countryside but it’s still close to the city and the airport.”

The new HQ, part-funded by the UEFA HatTrick programme, was officially opened amid much pomp and ceremony in May 2016. Among the entertainment laid on for the 500 guests was the arrival of the UEFA flag by parachute. Listening to the people who work there, all that is lacking are floodlights for the pitches. The reason for that is a rare species of butterfly that inhabits the forest. The installation of bright lights next to its habitat would prevent it from reproducing, a ‘nice’ obstacle to which the NZS hopes soon to find a solution that suits footballers and lepidopterans alike.

NZS technical director Jaklić occupies an office on the ground floor of the new HQ. In charge of women’s and grassroots football, youth teams and coach education, he has a wide remit that allows him to keep a close eye on the development of football in Slovenia. He is also responsible for launching and running a number of NZS programmes.

Of all his areas of responsibility, women’s football is the one that excites him the most. One of his biggest causes for satisfaction is the fact that the NZS has successfully built up three national women’s teams: Under-17s, Under-19s and seniors. “They’re all coached by people with UEFA Pro licences,” he adds.

Encouraging girls to play
Encouraging girls to play©Sportida

In a bid to encourage girls to take up football, the NZS has given them access to a number of programmes that were previously only open to boys, as Jaklić goes on to explain: “Four years ago we opened an academy in Ljubljana for the best girls in the country. There are 32 of them today and most of them are playing for the national teams.” His enthusiasm is shared by Mijatović, who recognises the value of the players getting to spend as much time as possible with each other: “They play together, they live together and they go to school together.” 

The academy was set up in response to the fact that not every town in Slovenia has a women’s football team. “But there are talented girls everywhere. And that was the problem,” Jaklić says. Girls in towns without a women’s team have to train with the boys, which is less than ideal. Another ‘problem’ is that the vast majority of Slovenian girls go on to university. The fact that Slovenia – a nation of barely 2 million people – has only three university towns (Ljubljana, Maribor and Koper), left the NZS with another question to ponder: “How do we get them to continue playing when they go to university and leave their club?” as Jaklić puts it.

The Ljubljana academy has provided the answer, allowing the best young female players to study and carry on training in the best possible conditions. “If we hadn’t done it,” he continues, “a lot of them would have given up playing.”

The battle to be number one
While targeting potential future members of the women’s national team, the NZS is also focusing on grassroots football for girls. Five years ago, with the aid of funding from UEFA, it started ‘I Love to Play Football’ festivals to promote the game among young girls.

As part of last year’s programme, five open days were held across the country, featuring workshops, training drills and circuits. As Jaklić explains, the idea is to help participants take their first steps towards joining a club: “A lot of girls kick a ball for the very first time at these events. We establish contact with them and clubs can then approach them. The girls that are keen eventually end up joining clubs. Our approach is to start at the bottom.”

Slovenia's women's Under-17 team in action against the Netherlands
Slovenia's women's Under-17 team in action against the Netherlands©UEFA

By focusing on young players, the NZS is hoping that women’s sections will become more of a permanent fixture at clubs. The equation is blindingly simple: the more girls enrol, the more teams there will be. And the younger they are, the likelier they are to play the game for a long time. The policy seems to be paying off – at a little over 2,500 at the last count, the number of registered female players is rising. 

None of Slovenia’s female footballers play the game professionally and only a handful play abroad, a situation that Jaklić is keen to address by developing the women’s game even further. In order to achieve that, and make teams as competitive as possible, he is putting as much emphasis on the human touch and interpersonal factors as he is on training. His objective is for women not just to play the game but also to take up coaching, administrative roles and as many other positions as possible.

Slovenia celebrate a European Qualifiers goal against Scotland
Slovenia celebrate a European Qualifiers goal against Scotland©Getty Images

“I think it’s very important for women have other women around. It makes for better communication,” he explains. “It’s not good when you only have men in charge of a women’s team. We need to have women in the dressing room, on the bus and everywhere else, communicating with the players. It’s psychological and it goes well beyond the simple need to get results.” In continuing to attract more and more players, male and female, the NZS is hoping to consolidate football’s position as the number one sport in Slovenia. 

The game has long had competition from indoor sports such as volleyball, handball (Slovenia finished third at the IHF Men’s World Championships in France this year) and, above all, basketball.

That competition increased this September, when the men’s basketball players earned national hero status by winning the European title (see inset). Led by the outstanding Goran Dragić, who makes the plays for NBA franchise Miami Heat, they went unbeaten in the tournament, capping their stunning run with victory over Serbia in the final. In the process, Dragić and co. had many youngsters dreaming of pulling on a sleeveless vest and playing the game. Mijatović refuses to panic, however: “There’s not that much competition with basketball really. Youngsters want to play football first and foremost. Out of every ten youngsters, there are eight who are drawn to football and two who’ll play basketball.”

In his bid to maintain football’s popularity in Slovenia, Mijatović can count on the support on the country’s biggest teams: NK Maribor, who recently competed in their second UEFA Champions League group stage in three years; and NK Domzale, who have been battling it out in the UEFA Europa League. Meanwhile, every match in the country’s ten-team top division is broadcast on TV, week in week out, along with selected games from the second division, giving football the kind of coverage not afforded to other sports.

Starting them young
Seated in his large office looking out on the forest, Jaklić reflects on how far Slovenian football has come since the days before the country gained its independence: “We became a separate state in 1991. When we were part of Yugoslavia we had a reputation for being a winter sports country, but football is the number one sport now.” 

The Slovenian FA wants all youngsters to have the possibility to play the game
The Slovenian FA wants all youngsters to have the possibility to play the game©Sportida

Aside from Oblak, his fellow players in the national team and the clubs competing on the European stage, Jaklić also has to make sure that the grassroots game is thriving. The specific efforts made to promote the game among girls are just one part of that. Realising that school is where children start kicking a ball around for fun, and drawing on Slovenia's network of school sports facilities, the NZS has set up a programme to encourage all youngsters to take up the game. Some 70% of the country’s schools are taking part in the initiative, which runs for the duration of the academic year – from September to June – with some 6,000 boys and girls staying on after their lessons for football practice. 

“The main aim is to motivate these young children and give them the chance to discover what football is all about,” explains Jaklić. “They stay in their environment after their classes, with their friends and in their school, and they train.”

In addition to training sessions, matches are organised between schools, albeit with the accent very much on fun and enjoyment rather than results (goals are not counted and players swap teams in the middle of games). As part of the programme, children also learn to keep dressing rooms tidy, be disciplined and on time and, in the case of the younger ones, get changed by themselves. It is a healthy way for children to learn from each other, and one from which the NZS wants local clubs to benefit by inviting youngsters to pay them a visit and have a look around their facilities, thereby introducing them to the club and hopefully encouraging them to join. Getting children to play the game for fun and then join a club if they are keen is just the first step. The next step is to keep them in the game for as long as possible and help them to progress.

A cause of regret for Mijatović is the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who leave Slovenia to try their luck abroad and then invariably end up in reserve teams or second-division sides: “My aim is for young players to stay here as long as they can and then leave for a European club where they’re actually going to get a game,” says the NZS president. “Though we’ve got quite a few players who are with good European teams and 99% of our national team players are based abroad, the standard of the Slovenian championship is improving every year. It’s important for the fans that we have good clubs, but it’s also important for marketing the game and for youngsters. The better the championship is, the more they’ll want to play football.”

In echoing those views, Jaklić offers up the example of gifted young forward Jan Mlakar. Born in 1998, Mlakar came through the youth ranks at NK Domzale before leaving for Fiorentina when he was 16. Unable to make the breakthrough after three years in Tuscany, he has been loaned out to an Italian second-division side, where he has barely played a game. “We still pick him for our Under-21 team, though, because we know he’s the best young forward Slovenia’s got,” Jaklić explains. “Having said that, if he’d stayed here, he would have become an even better player.”

Another challenge is to deter players of a similar age from giving up the game completely, either because of their studies or their ability. The NZS has seen many youngsters turn their backs on football when they are trying to make the jump from Under-15 to Under-17. It is a pivotal point in the player pathway, and a tough one in terms of who makes the cut. “It’s very hard when a 16-year-old hears that there’s no longer a place for them at the club where they started out,” laments the technical director. “Look at the youngsters who’ve spent six or seven years with a team only to be told that they’re not good enough and can’t play for them anymore. They want to stay at the club, train two or three times a week, and play matches at a lower standard.

"The thing is they can’t because clubs don’t have enough teams. They want to carry on playing for the club they love and where their friends are, but they have to go and look for another one.”

In Jaklić’s eyes, the key is to build new pitches and give clubs the chance to have more teams, which in turn would give youngsters more opportunities to play. That process is already under way, with a significant amount of the funding received through the UEFA HatTrick programme now being channelled into the construction of these much-needed facilities.

“There are several dozen of them,” explains Jaklić, who rounds off by saying: “With the increase in the number of players, clubs will need to create new teams so that everyone can get a game. And if these youngsters stay on in Slovenia or have the chance to play in our league before going abroad, then the clubs will make more money and will be able to bring on new players. It’s a virtuous circle.”

Oblak, who was spotted keeping goal for Olimpija Ljubljana a good few years before his face was plastered on the city’s buses, would not argue with that.

This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 174