A Slovenian Blue Tomorrow?

In twenty-first century football, everyone is trying to find an edge over the competition like never before.

With margins between success and failure ever more fragile, and competition so high, stealing a march on your contemporaries is more valuable an approach than ever.

So the news from Slovenia today that Chelsea have struck a working relationship with national powerhouse NK Maribor could be quite the story somewhere down the road.

Affiliations aren’t new, and most certainly aren’t to Stamford Bridge officials.

Over the years the Blues have teamed up with a number of other clubs, most notably of late Westerlo of Belgium, PSV Eindhoven, and this season Vitesse Arnhem, as well as a series of relationships with American soccer setups as part of a grassroots scheme.

Those have largely existed to serve the purpose of developing young talent, often without a work permit to play in England, but the Maribor deal is a little bit different to anything Chelsea have investigated recently.

Former Slovenian international star Zlatko Zahovic, who is now Maribor’s Technical Director, announced the deal and explained its purpose:

“Chelsea came to Maribor and presented the request for cooperation between the clubs. When I asked why exactly they had chosen NK Maribor, I was very surprised. They know a lot about our club and soccer school, and underlined players they believe they can get to the highest level.

Their scouting service has come to the conclusion that our club and work at schoolboy level deserves special attention. Cases like Josip Ilicic and Armin Bacinovic, Dejan Skolnik and Rene Mihelic, Miral Samardzic and others have brought them to the realisation that we are a club that is part of Europe’s best work with young players. Examples of our players show they are immediately prepared for the highest demands of European football. Maribor in their eyes guarantees success.

A strong team of our professional staff will travel to Chelsea to learn from the methods of coach Carlo Ancelotti. And in the second half of January our football coaches from our schools will be invited to the Chelsea Football Academy to gain new experiences and gather new knowledge they can transmit to their work in our football schools for further fine-tuning.”

“We opened (transfers) for discussion too, and Chelsea are prepared to carry out cross-team transfers. We will talk about the names a bit later, but I’m sure in the future someone from NK Maribor will be wearing a Chelsea shirt, either at schoolboy, youth or first team level.”

An all-encompassing development programme will be beneficial to all parties, but when you take a step back and look more closely at Maribor and Slovenian football in general, the potential involved is rather exciting as the club expands its horizons.

The last decade has been a remarkable one for the former Yugoslav nation. After struggling in their fledgling years as an independent nation, they caused something of a surprise in qualifying for Euro 2000, before putting up a more than respectable showing in the Finals.

They went one better and featured in their debut World Cup in 2002, before narrowly missing out on a spot in Euro 2004. After a small decline, they were back in South Africa earlier this year and are on course to head to Euro 2012.

The progress has been swift and has seen domestic football flourish, with expansion of first-class facilities and youth academies on a scale never before seen in the country.

Export of talent has been slow and steady, largely to second-tier European leagues, but due to its proximity to Italy, some of the finer talent has found its way across the border into Serie A.

English football fans will be familiar with Robert Koren, currently of Hull, but six of their most recent national squad ply their trade in the peninsula and include many of the names mentioned by Zahovic – products of Maribor’s academy.

In fact, the wider Balkan region, particularly the former Yugoslav nations of Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia have all gone on to produce top class talent of their own after becoming independent.

The likes of Stevan Jovetic, Edin Dzeko, Goran Pandev and Luka Modric are all household names and are merely the highlight of each of those countries, with work continuing at a great rate.

One only has to look at the fabled Dinamo Zagreb academy in Croatia, of which Mateo Kovavic (16) and Sime Vrsaljko (18) are the current darlings, for what can and is being achieved.

Slovenia might be a little behind, but given the far smaller resources they are working with and the difference in population roughly half, they are on their way to establishing themselves as a perennial contender to qualify for major tournaments.

Jose Mourinho was effusive in his praise of teenage playmaker Rene Krhin, whilst Italian teams are watching Palermo’s Josip Ilicic and wondering how their scouts missed such a prodigious talent.

Chelsea actually headed to Slovenia for a friendly against Maribor two years ago, with Brendan Rodgers’ reserves losing 3-2 to their first team. Pictures from that match can still be seen here.

At worst, this link-up results in nothing tangible for Chelsea. As one of the leading clubs in the world with elite facilities, a sense of responsibility to educate and learn from others is present in the thinking behind the deal, but there’s far more on the table if things go well.

If the club are able to identify, help develop and acquire a player who can go on and be a regular member of the first team squad, or perhaps reach the heights of Zahovic (who played for Porto, Benfica and Valencia), then this will be a great success.

Dark clouds have gathered over the club in the last few weeks, with some supporters in need of something to cheer them up.

Be cautious, but there could be a sprinkling of Slovenia in Chelsea colours somewhere in the not too distant future…

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