Belfast Telegraph

Slovenia v Northern Ireland: Slovenia jumping to great heights

Slovenia and Northern Ireland should perhaps be twinned as the locals are a laid back bunch.

But relaxation isn’t on the agenda for Nigel Worthington with the Euro 2012 qualifiers swinging into action.

Slovenia, like Northern Ireland, is a small country — the longest journey from one end to the other on well kept roads takes three and a half hours.

And the weather is similar to back home, so heat won’t be an excuse on Friday night.

This former part Yugoslavia belonged to Italy and Austria between the two World Wars and before that it was one of the far corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Maribor is not the capital — Ljubljana has that honour — but it shares its reputation for being a quiet, safe spot to live.

Slovenia's second city is a lovely old town, packed with galleries, churches, cathedrals and engaging squares. But it’s also at the heart of Slovenia's wine industry — not that the players were able to investigate the wineries.

The Vinag cellar under Svobode Square is known as the Wine Tabernacle. It covers two hectares and can hold up to 5.5 million litres of wine. Reports of a post-match party there have been greatly exaggerated.

The people of Maribor are excellent hosts — no wonder up to 1,000 Northern Ireland fans are dropping by — but just don’t mention the basketball as local sports fans are still fuming after the national team were given a thrashing by USA.

Like Montenegro, Slovenia’s football team are new kids on the international block — their life in competitive international football began in 1992 following the split of the former Yugoslavia but the beautiful game is fighting with ice hockey and basketball in its claim to be the national sport.

In the winter time, the skiing centres are buzzing and it’s fair to say that Slovenia boasts more Alpine ski champions than Northern Ireland.

Our boys may be used to climbing mountains in qualifying campaigns but they could also learn a lot from their hosts as mountaineering is also popular.

And you just can’t escape politics. On Tuesday the hotels were surrounded by elderly party-goers celebrating a reunion with “old political friends”.

The alcohol was flowing as mature hips swayed to music.

Despite their recent introduction to competitive international football, Slovenia’s rise up the FIFA rankings to 19th (Northern Ireland are 59) underlines how our country is being left behindno longer beginners, they are competent ski jumpers while Northern Ireland are struggling to stay on their feet.

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