Robert Koren's late and rather lucky goal took Slovenia to victory over 10-man Algeria and the top of England's group here yesterday. In the sort of goalkeeping error that Group C has already provided for spectators in South Africa, the Slovenian captain sent in a long-range shot on 79 minutes which the Algeria keeper Fawzi Chaouchi misjudged, allowing it to bounce into the net off his arm.
"I was just lucky to see it go in like that," said Koren, who was released this summer by West Bromwich Albion after scoring 22 goals in three years at the club.
The Algerian coach Rabah Saadane said the new World Cup ball may have been a factor in the goal. "Everyone saw what happened with the ball, and what happened yesterday with England's goalkeeper," Saadane said. "You have to adjust to the flight of the ball."
Slovenia broke the deadlock seven minutes after the Algeria substitute Abdelkader Ghezzal had been sent off after picking up a second yellow card, for handling inside the penalty area. It was the tiny Balkan nation's first ever World Cup victory after losing all three group matches at the 2002 tournament.
Algeria had twice gone close in the first half when Nadir Belhadj's 25-metre free-kick had the Slovenia keeper Samir Handanovic at full stretch to push the ball over the crossbar, and defender Rafik Halliche headed just wide.
Algeria are England's next opponents and go into Friday's game in Cape Town under pressure at the bottom of the group. Coach Saadane said Chaouchi apologised to the team for fumbling the ball. "We must recover and prepare for an even more difficult match against England, which is the best of the group," Saadane said. "It's going to be very difficult now. We had a great opportunity today and we missed it."
Both sets of players in Polokwane showed their nerves in the first half, frequently losing possession with inaccurate passes and crosses. Slovenia's only scoring chance before the break was Valter Birsa's long-range attempt in the 43rd minute, tipped over the bar in a spectacular right-hand save by Chaouchi.
There was some commotion in the stands during the interval when the World Cup-winning former France captain Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, was forced to climb to a higher section to get away from autograph-seeking Algerian fans who were pushed back briskly by security guards.
Yesterday's game, at the newly built Peter Mokaba Stadium, was the first ever World Cup match played on a surface partly consisting of artificial grass. Similar turf is being used at some major stadiums in Europe.
"I do not agree with this turf," the Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said. "It's no excuse, it's the same for Algeria as well. But it is a different game on this surface."
The match could have taken a different turn two minutes before Koren's winner when the Algeria midfielder Karim Ziani caught the defender Marko Suler off guard and pushed toward the Slovenian goal, but he was cut off by good goalkeeping from Handanovic.
Algeria pressed for an equaliser in the final minutes but the Slovenian defence held firm. "It was a mental victory," Kek said. "We wanted to win so much, so it's great for our confidence to get that win."
To get to South Africa, Algeria beat their great north African rivals Egypt in a tense play-off to qualify for the first time since 1986, while Slovenia reached its second World Cup with an upset play-off victory over Russia. Slovenia face the United States in Johannesburg hours before Algeria kick off against England. Beating the Americans would put them, improbably, atop Group C.
Algeria (5-4-1): Chaouchi; Bougherra, Belhadj, Yahia, Halliche, Lacen, Djebbour (Ghezzal, 58), Matmour (Saifi 81), Ziani, Yebda, Kadir (Guedioura, 82).
Slovenia (4-4-2): Handanovic; Brecko, Suler, Cesar, Koren, Birsa (Pecnik, 84) Novakovic, Jokic, Dedic (Ljubijankic, 53), Kirm, Radosavljevic (Komac, 87).
Referee: C Batres (Guatemala)