We’ve mentioned before that the current band of Lakers happens to have a more-than-usual amount of serious soccer fans for an NBA locker room, from Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Adam Morrison and others.
So when the World Cup Draw was announced last week, there were more than a few excited Lakers in the locker room. Team USA had what many would consider a favorable draw, with England, Algeria and yes, Sasha’s Slovenia making up its group.
So on June 18 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Americans will face the Slovenians, with trash talking rights on the line. We spent a few minutes talking to Vujacic about the matchup:
MT: I worry that the U.S. might underestimate Slovenia or Algeria, nations without big soccer names yet full of solid international talent. Slovenia’s ranked 33rd in FIFA, Algeria 28th and the US 14th. Can Slovenia take advantage?
Vujacic: When Spain played America (in the Confederation’s Cup), they said, ‘Those little Americans with no soccer tradition,’ they kind of underestimated their opponent and they lost. I think you have to be smart before you draw any conclusions. It’s an interesting draw, but it’s going to be hard for any team. England is definitely the favorite, and the other three teams will do their best.
MT: What’s the story on your countrymen? How good are they?
Vujacic: They’re better than they’re ranked. They play against really good teams in Europe, and all the guys play on very respected European soccer teams. They have good soccer IQ and I think they have a great chance to advance.
MT: There are only about two million people in Slovenia, as after the former Yugoslavia split up, much of the talent dispersed as well. Does that make it more special for Slovenia to qualify on its own, just as Serbia did?
Vujacic: It does, of course. Yugoslavia used to have a great soccer team, but then the country split and every (new) country fought for itself. When Slovenia qualified, they were celebrating not for days but for weeks. It’s a source of great pride. Slovenia was not known for soccer, but I’m going to be cheering for Serbia as well. It is both fortunate and unfortunate that the talent had to split, with everyone now representing their own country.
MT: In basketball, the better team almost always seems to win, but in soccer, nothing is ever guaranteed. You can run into a hot goalie, hit the post a few times or get a tough break on a penalty kick at your own end. Just look at Greece winning Euro 2004…
Vujacic: Right, when they beat Portugal, Greece scored only one goal and then played defense. If you were to tell me that Greece would have won the European Championships, I never would have believed it in 100 years. But that’s how it goes sometimes.
MT: That said, do you think Americans realize that being a favorite in the rankings doesn’t necessarily translate into wins?
Vujacic: I respect the US team, and I think especially since David (Beckham) came to the States, the level went up. But still, we know that in Europe they play the best soccer. So it’s hard to predict, and there are still six months before the games … Hopefully Slovenia understands how important it is and that anybody can win it.