Slovenia may give premier more boots to shine

LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Soccer often takes a back seat in Slovenia, a country of just two million where winter sports such as Alpine skiing, ski jumping and ice hockey draw bigger crowds than first division matches.

That definitely was not the case after the Slovenians stunned Russia in a World Cup playoff to reach their third major tournament as an independent nation.

The country's celebrations were capped by Prime Minister Borut Pahor fulfilling a promise to clean the players' boots.

"I admit I did not clean them thoroughly," Pahor told Slovenian TV after coming out of the dressing room.

The Slovenians hope to qualify for the knockout stage of a major competition for the first time in South Africa and their qualifying performances give cause for optimism.

Slovenia sprung the first upset when they clinched the runners-up spot in a qualifying group including Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

They then produced the shock of Europe's play-offs when they knocked out Russia on away goals.

That kind of resilience has been the Slovenian national team's trademark down the years and although they will start as underdogs against England in Group C, they will not fear Algeria or the United States.

Slovenia are a tough side to break down and their back four are superbly marshaled by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic who has made a name for himself in Serie A in three seasons with Udinese.

Wisla Krakow's Andraz Kirm and Bostjan Cesar, who plays for French side Grenoble, were the defensive pillars in Slovenia's qualifying campaign while Valter Birsa of AJ Auxerre pulled the strings in midfield.

The key player on the road to South Africa was 30-year-old Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic, the top scorer with five goals.

If Slovenia can produce the kind of consistency that took them through the qualifiers, reaching the knockout stage may not be beyond them.

However a thin squad with limited talent is unlikely to progress beyond the last 16 and even that may be too tall an order if any of their main players pick up injuries or suspensions.

(Reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Robert Woodward)