Slovenia 1, Algeria 0

Hey England and America, look who’s on top of your World Cup

group. Little Slovenia!

Robert Koren scored a late goal Sunday to give Slovenia a 1-0

win over 10-man Algeria in the teams’ tournament opener, putting

the World Cup’s smallest nation – population 2 million, about the

size of Houston – ahead of the United States and England in Group

C.

The Slovenian captain struck a long-range shot that Algeria

goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi misjudged and allowed to bounce into the

net off his arm in the 79th minute.

“I was just lucky to see it go in like that,” Koren said.

Algerian coach Rabah Saadane said the new World Cup ball was a

challenge for goalkeepers.

“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.”

Algeria substitute Abdelkader Ghezzal was ejected seven minutes

earlier, picking up a second yellow card for handling the ball

inside the Slovenian penalty area.

It was the first World Cup victory for Slovenia. The Balkan

country lost all three of its group matches in the 2002

tournament.

“It was a mental victory,” said Slovenian coach Matjaz Kek.

“We wanted to win so much, so it’s great for our confidence to get

that win.”

Both sides knew they were heading into a match in which a loss

would be costly, with England and the United States – both higher

ranked – left on the schedule. The Group C favorites tied 1-1

Saturday after a blunder by England goalkeeper Robert Green allowed

Clint Dempsey’s shot to trickle into the net.

Algeria twice came close to scoring in the first half, when

Nadir Belhadj’s 25-yard free kick forced Slovenia goalkeeper Samir

Handanovic to stretch and push the ball over the crossbar, and when

defender Rafik Halliche headed the ball just wide.

Algeria coach Rabah Saadane said Chaouchi apologized to the team

for failing to track Koren’s shot. But the coach refused to

criticize the goalkeeper.

“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.”

The players seemed nervous 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

with a spectacular right-hand save by Chaouchi.

The match could have taken a different turn two minutes before

Koren’s winner when Algeria’s Karim Ziani caught defender Marko

Suler off-guard and pushed toward the Slovenian goal, but was cut

off by Handanovic.

There was some commotion in the stands during the break when

former France great Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent,

was forced to climb to a higher section to get away from

autograph-seeking fans who were pushed back briskly by security

guards.

Algeria beat North African rival Egypt in a tense playoff to

qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Slovenia

reached its second World Cup with an upset playoff victory over

Russia.

Slovenia faces the U.S. next, while Algeria travels to Cape Town

to take on England.

The game at the newly built Peter Mokaba Stadium was the first

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,” Kek said. “It’s no excuse,

it’s the same for Algeria as well. But it is a different game on

this surface.”