If newly minted international pariah Thierry Henry hadn’t palmed plucky Ireland out of the tournament, the story of yesterday’s World Cup qualification finale would certainly have been Slovenia’s shock elimination of Guus Hiddink’s Russia. This match had it all: swaggering ball movement from the tiny Mediterranean/Balkan side; a superb, rapier-like goal to put the home team up on away goals; desperation attacking; immature spats; near brawls; red cards; flares in the stands. In the end, a country with a population just under 2 million eliminated a nuclear-armed empire about 70 times bigger.
Slovenia’s thrilling victory also capped the most dominant performance by any single nation in the European qualification campaign. That nation: Yugoslavia. Always one of the more potent national teams back when it existed, the splintered domain may be even more powerful now that it has ceased to exist. Consider that Serbia, the core of the old socialist multinational, qualified in impressive fashion. Croatia finished third in its group to an in-form England and tough Ukraine. And poor little Bosnia only missed the Show by a couple of Portuguese goals. Then the Slovenes pulled off one of the great giant-killings of all time. That’s two spin-off states in, two near misses. It all makes the Soviet Union looks pretty sad.
Somewhere, Tito is smiling.