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Football association head: Playing Portugal will be one of centenary highlights

Ljubljana, 14. februarja - Slovenian Football Association (NZS) president Radenko Mijatović says the organisation's coming centenary will be packed with events. The highlights will include a gala in April and a friendly match with Portugal in March.

Brdo pri Kranju.
Intervju s predsednikom NZS Radenkom Mijatovićem.
Foto: Nebojša Tejić/STA

We're in for a major celebration marking the association's centenary. What will be the main events of this jubilee?

The main event will be a gala academy in April. We will look back on 100 years of the association and have a programme fit for the occasion with high-level guests. We're talking about people from European and world football and, of course, Slovenian legends to boot.

We will also watch a documentary the association is filming for this anniversary. There will be a photo exhibition documenting all eras of the association. And a local academy with local guests held in cooperation with inter-local football organisations.

There will be festivities throughout the year. One of the highlights will be a friendly match with Portugal in Ljubljana on 31 March.

We're thankful to the Portuguese Football Federation for responding to our invitation. Our relations with the Portuguese association's head Fernando Gomes, a vice-president of the Union of European Football Associations, are excellent. We practically arranged this match already before the finals of the 2018 European tournament in futsal held in Slovenia where Portugal was victorious. Fernando has kept his promise.

Have the Portuguese had any special requests?

They have been professional and have not had any special requests. This match will come in the run-up to the Euro 2020 and will come in handy for Portugal. The country's team deems the match with Slovenia a very good practice during the preparations.

Will Christiano Ronaldo play in Ljubljana?

That is difficult to say. The entire Portuguese men's team will be here, but there may always be circumstances leading to certain players missing out on the match. However, we're talking about a complete Portuguese team. We cannot forecast individual players' situation on 31 May though.

You've been part of the Slovenian Football Association for a long time - first as a player, then a referee and official. What was your first impression of the organisation?

My initial contact with NZS came about when I was playing for Slovan, at a time when the association was based in Tabor. There was little room and not a whole lot personnel. The association was still a part of the former Yugoslav football association. After Slovenia's independence, NZS moved to Parmova street and then to Čerinova.

The management at the time had a major impact on the development of Slovenian football and the association. This is a major reason why the NZS is extremely well-organised today, well-resourced with adequate offices and infrastructure. If one compares the period back then and today's, the situation is considerably different. A lot has been done in the past 30 years.

Did the association provide adequate support for players and referees at the time?

It operated well in those circumstances. Post-independence evolution resulted in NZS upgrading its quality and skill-set and increasing funds, making it easier for the association to improve Slovenian football and thus better the conditions. A great many correct steps were taken to result in the current situation of the association, clubs and football in general.

Which area has seen the greatest progress since independence and where is room for improvement?

It was key back then to put an association of a small country on the map. A C-level tournament needed to be brought up to the A-level, since apart from several clubs, there was no league football at a high-quality level. Referee and coaching organisations needed to be modernised as well.

The national men's team had to be formed and football experts had to be promoted. A small country made it to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup in a very short time. In a decade, the national team exceeded insanely high quality standards. Bagging a win against the Russian team and making it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was phenomenal.

These results were achieved in poor conditions by pure drive. It was natural that such accomplishments were followed by infrastructure changes across Slovenia. There is a major difference between infrastructure now and back then, however there is still room for improvement in this field.

NZS is the only football association that co-funds infrastructure owned by cities to promote football for young generations. In the Russian city Krasnodar, there is an academy boasting 26 fields and training 12,000 children. Such conditions are outstanding. Or an individual investing in a stadium for 36,000 people with a price tag of EUR 350 million. This is what Slovenian football has to compete with. And Krasnodar is not even a big name in European football. This area is where the association sees major differences. However, Slovenian football is making progress as well.

UEFA's strategy is roughly in line with those of national associations, with UEFA being a key pillar of NZS apart from FIFA. What will be the steps forward?

Developing the first NZS strategy for 2015-2020 was already a project supported by UEFA. Now NZS is drawing up a strategy for a new period on the basis of UEFA's strategic goals, focussing on club tournaments and women's football and highlighting the importance of training experts. Without such training there are no quality players and progress in this area is one of the strategy's top priorities, as is upgrading the infrastructure and fostering young players.

The number of registered players is constantly growing, currently it stands at roughly 55,000. What are the targets?

The association aims to attract as many young players as possible. Some 30% of all registered players in Slovenia play football. Given the global trends, the number is expected to continue growing. The growth trends are accelerating, but there are certain limits - the population and the limited number of sports. The target, based on NZS estimates, is to reach up to 100,000 registered players by 2030. If we exceed 60,000 or 70,000 in the next strategy period, that would be quite a feat.

Is NZS truly as healthy and wealthy as it tends to be presented in the public?

NZS is healthy, but it is not wealthy. All of its budget goes back into football and numerous activities. People working at the association are not paid any more than equivalent personnel in the business sector. The budget is truly expanding year-on-year, but so is expenditure. We cannot talk about wealth, but we can talk about a healthy and balanced budget that does not depend on outstanding events.

The budget partly depends on the national men's team's performance.

Marketing indeed improves whenever the team plays well. Tickets sales are another source of income, which means performance is truly important. Achievements also result in advertising revenue and media rights. Discussing the general environment, some see progress, some see faults. When the latter are asked about solutions, they are tight-lipped. The media also more or less paint a bad picture.

The ten-year drought in the national men's team missing out major tournaments is considered a failure. Is it essential that the team makes it to the 2022 World Cup?

That would be great for further popularisation of football and capitalising on that. But it is extremely hard to make it to the World Cup. More than 200 teams will compete for 32 tournament slots. Only 13 will be from Europe. Securing a spot there is harder than at the Euro and is thus necessarily a goal. The association wishes it would happen, but it's not vital. I expect and wish that Slovenia's team make it to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar or 2024 Euro in Germany during the next strategy period.

Is Matjaž Kek the right person for carrying out this project by 2024?

I believe he is. That is why we've recruited him as head coach. He's changed so much in a short time. Game quality and match attendance have showed that his direction is the right one. His assistants are working well, Slovenia has a solid team and I see zero problems on its path to new achievements with Kek as coach. We're satisfied.

The national football centre at Brdo pri Kranju has created quite a lot of potential. How is the marketing, particularly after the nearby hotel is renovated?

I believe that the establishment of the football centre was a brilliant business move. NZS holds activities there year-round. But it is true that a modernised hotel would improve marketing options, most notably in summer. We've hosted esteemed figures there, including the presidents of Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. They all highlighted that the centre was a paradise for club preparations. The hotel is a key component though. When it is revamped, we could improve this segment as well.

You've been NZS president since 2016. What would you highlight as your key achievements during this time?

An individual cannot do anything by themselves. The association has changed a lot of things but all those improvements were based on efforts of previous presidents. We've achieved a lot in terms of infrastructure, setting up lighting systems in all A-league football fields. We've been promoting integrating young players in starting line-ups and expanding the B-league to provide more opportunities for players coming of age. We've been working on education and socially-responsible projects. But it's difficult to talk about oneself, others should assess our work.

Your term is coming to an end this year. At the end of the year, there will be an election. Will you bid for another term?

There's still time until then. Given how NZS performed in the past four years, I see no reason why I should not carry on. But everything is possible in football and life. It is difficult to predict anything. There will be enough time for such talks in the summer.

© STA, 2020