Maribor on Cloud Nine After Champions League Berth
Maribor, 27 August - Slovenia's second largest city is in raptures after their beloved football club, NK Maribor, beat the odds to advance to the UEFA Champions League group stage for the second time in history.
The perennial Slovenian champions upset Scottish giants Celtic 1-0 in the return leg of the playoff in Glasgow with a smart display of football.
The return to Europe's top club competition after a 15-year hiatus is being celebrated across Slovenia, but nowhere like in the city of 115,000, where football is far and away the top sport.
Returning home at 5 AM, the team was greeted by about 1,000 fans at the airport, many of whom had been celebrating on the streets of the city throughout the night.
The hero of the moment was Maribor captain Marcos Tavares, who scored the winning goal in the 75th minute when he chipped a loose ball over outstanding Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
The Brazilian-born forward who has made Slovenia and Maribor his adopted home since arriving here in 2008 could not hide his emotion after the match: "My heart beats for Maribor. My life changed when I came here and I think the whole club deserves a go in the Champions League."
"It has been the dream of this team and the whole Maribor to play in the Champions League. We believed that we could do it until the very end," the 30-year-old said.
The old saying that third time is a charm held true for Maribor, who had stumbled at the final step to the Champions League in the previous two seasons, losing to Dinamo of Zagreb in 2012 and Victoria Plzen last season.
Coach Ante Šimundža, who played for Maribor when it first reached the Champions League in 1999, would not let there be a third missed chance.
After the 1-1 draw in Maribor a week ago, the former striker prepared a smart game plan to keep the Scots on their toes in the return leg, even making two eye-opening changes in the line up by putting Jean-Philippe Mendy in at striker and saving Maribor's pocket dynamo Damjan Bohar for the second half.
Mendy provided a big presence at the front and some much needed assistance in defending against high balls from corners, a strong point for Celtic in the first match.
Keeping Bohar out of the first line-up was meanwhile intended to save the speedster's strength for the second half, when the coach expected Celtic to open up.
"We knew they would start carefully and then try and step up the tempo. Celtic Park is a tough place for visiting teams due to the crowd and I believed that Celtic would try and go for the win," said Šimundža for the club's website.
The meticulous game plan also envisaged a more prolific passing game in the middle. "Celtic doesn't like playing teams who run a lot of combinations in the passing game. Vršič, Tavares, Ibrami all helped in defence and then helped in creating dangerous attacking plays."
Unsurprisingly, Šimundža is now the first Slovenian to ever reach the Champions League both as a player and a coach - both with his home town club.
"This is a great achievement for all of us. For the club, for the fans, for the city of Maribor, for Slovenia as a whole. We worked hard for this and tonight's victory is the realisation of our dreams and a reward for all our efforts," the 42-year-old said.
In addition to Tavares, a key role in the win was played by midfielders Aleš Mertelj (Bohar's replacement) and Zeljko Filipović, who contributed heavily to Maribor winning the battle for possession of the ball.
"We're over the moon with the result. We tried hard and had a good game. Playing in front of such a large crowd is something special, but we played as if we are at home on such a stadium," said Filipović.
The win will reverberate in the Slovenian league as well, since the 12-time national league champions will get a massive boost to their budget for their efforts, equal to what its entire squad is worth on the market (EUR 9.7m according to transfermarkt.de).
Combined with the bonuses for playing in the qualifying rounds, the club will receive around EUR 10m from UEFA, a figure they will be able to increase with wins or draws in the group stage (EUR 500,000 for each draw and EUR 1m for a win).
This is expected to be invested in keeping an edge over their cash-strapped Slovenian rivals for some time to come.
But as the Maribor-based daily Večer points out in Wednesday's commentary, this will require careful spending aimed at bolstering the foundations rather than splashing on big names in a mistaken belief that a windfall from the Champions League can be secured every year.
Highlighting that Maribor burnt itself after the 1999 success by trying too hard to form a big-name squad and paid the price by nearly going under due to debts in the years after, Večer urges the club's leadership to demonstrate success will not get to their calm and collected nature.
Former national team striker Zlatko Zahovič, who has masterminded Maribor's resurrection as sports director over the past seven years, has led a very deliberate growth and Večer anticipates this will not change following the latest success.
The first step for Maribor now will be to learn of its opponents - the draw for the group stage of the Champions League will be held on Thursday in Monaco - and to get ready to host some of the biggest names of European football in the city on the Drava River.