It is with ambition and confidence that Josip Ilicic will face England on Sunday. Slovenia’s finest outfield player is in the form of his life, having performed brilliantly for Fiorentina in the final months of the Serie A season. He is desperate to prove his worth against England in Ljubljana but also to put behind him a damaging falling-out with coach Srecko Katanec, which led to him being expelled from the national team last autumn.
Slovenia are fighting hard for second place in Group E, hoping to squeeze in ahead of the more fancied Swiss. At the helm is Katanec, the gruff, single-minded coach who took the team to Euro 2000 and the World Cup of 2002.
As ever with Katanec’s Slovenia, there is a tension between the coach’s strict, rigid methods and the individualistic impulses of his best players. That tension sparked off spectacularly in 2002, when Zlatko Zahovic, Slovenia’s greatest international, called him a “prick of a coach and a prick of a player” after being substituted against Spain. Zahovic was sent home.
Ilicic is no Zahovic but he is the best Slovenian player of this generation, a subtle, elusive, incisive midfielder who has made a real success of his five years in Italy. In a team of industrious but unimaginative workers, Ilicic stands out like a lighthouse. And yet, after Slovenia disappointingly lost their first qualifier of this campaign, 1-0 away to Estonia, Katanec decided to do without his biggest name.
Ilicic was furious and promptly announced his retirement from international football. Katanec shrugged, explaining he needed “hungry, not famous players”. Playing with all the qualities Katanec demands, Slovenia won their next two qualifiers, Switzerland 1-0 at home and Lithuania 2-0 away.
When Slovenia came to Wembley in November, Katanec hoped Ilicic would have learnt his lesson and return to the squad a changed man. “I called him a couple of times but got no answer, I even sent him an SMS,” Katanec said. “I am sorry that he took everything as a degradation. Maybe that was all a part of my tactics, that maybe he would be lifted by everything, that he would go to Wembley, score and say: ‘F*** you, coach’.” That may have been the intention but Ilicic refused, throwing himself instead into his Italian club side.
When Ilicic is on form – which is not always the case – he can be a brilliant player and he helped to drag Fiorentina to fourth place with some remarkable displays. He finished the season as the club’s top scorer. Katanec’s tough love had worked.
So Katanec finally recalled Ilicic in March for the qualifier against San Marino although, at his press conference, he would not explain why. Ilicic made the case for him, scoring within six minutes. Slovenia won 6-0.
In the final month of the Italian season he scored seven Serie A goals and he now approaches this game desperate to prove to Katanec and the world just how good he is.
“I want to continue my club form with the national team,” he said this week. “We must show the English that we are a good team and that we do not play for good clubs for no reason.
“Why should I talk about taking a point when we can win all three? We need to think ambitiously and give everything to win in front of our fans. I came here to win and cannot think otherwise.”
Ilicic will be floating around in the hole on Sunday, skipping away from England’s markers, directing counter-attacks, trying to prove to everyone watching why he is still the biggest name in Slovenian football.Reuse content