10 June ~ In the middle of May, FC Luka Koper wrapped up their first Slovene championship, finishing 11 points ahead of defending champions Maribor. Koper, from the port city on Slovenia's Adriatic coast, are only the fifth team to have won the Prva Liga since it was established in 1991. With a new club breaking into the league's elite and the national team's dramatic qualification for the World Cup, one would expect the Slovene league to be in rude health.
However, domestic football has found itself in a crowded marketplace in Slovenia. Not only does it have to compete with more glamorous and wealthier leagues from around Europe, but winter sports are very popular and the country punches well above its weight in basketball. The national football team qualified for Euro 2000 and the following World Cup, and Slovene players have featured in all the major European leagues, but there is a feeling that the successes of the last decade led to wasted opportunities at league level. Crowd sizes fluctuate and clubs have been unable to keep hold of the most talented players.
The main cause for hope this time around is the significant development of the country's football infrastructure. After a number of years of the national team regularly moving home, they have settled in the Ljudski vrt stadium in Maribor while there is a new venue being built in the capital Ljubljana. Uros Zagrajsek of the Slovene ground-hopping website Stadioni believes that, aside from new stadiums, clubs need to work on the more commercial side of things: "The merchandise departments of most Slovene clubs are seriously neglected. In Slovenia obtaining a jersey can be a problem." This is borne out by the rarity of Slovene club shirts on streets across the country, something unwary tourists may have attributed to sartorial sophistication.
Things haven't been helped by the collapse of several big names in the years since 2002. Ljubljana didn't have a top flight club during the 2005-06 season, following the demise of both Olimpija Ljubljana and NK Ljubljana. The previous season also saw the forced relegation of NK Mura, another traditionally popular club. Prva Liga spokesman Grega Sever hopes that the financial problems that previously dogged the domestic game are now a thing of the past: "Obligatory licensing has taken care of that, although there are still some grey areas." There remains a concern that many clubs are too dependent on local government and business for funding.
Aside from financial controls, Sever says that the Prva Liga has taken significant steps to increase public interest: "The latest ratings show that Slovenian matches still get on average 10-15 per cent better ratings than Premier League matches. However, the Slovenian Prva Liga is developing new projects in order to strengthen the league's presence. We have a TV contract which guarantees two [out of five per round] live matches on TV for the next three seasons. We are also developing additional multimedia products for our website [such as a live ticker, video highlights and post-match video comments]." Games are now being advertised on television and billboards.
Supporters seem to largely agree with the steps taken by the Slovene FA to improve the game, and there is genuine good will towards the administrators from many quarters. Relative success in European continental competitions would be a major boost for domestic interest, but a good showing in the World Cup might also have a far more positive outcome for Slovene domestic football this time around. Jaimie Henderson