Kester Eddy visits little Zavrč, due to host Slovenian champions Maribor on Saturday as part of a remarkable third campaign in the top flight.
Zavrč are surely the most unlikely top-flight club in any European league. On Saturday, for the third season running, current Slovenian champions and regular European competitors Maribor will fulfill a fixture in the Prva Liga by visiting this hamlet of two churches, barely a handful of homes and one school-cum-office, a few hundred metres from the Croatian border. Miskicks from the adjacent training pitch regularly sail over the unguarded frontier.
The entire parish contains some 1,300 souls. Most locations of this size would struggle to put a Sunday-league team together.
Gates here average 400. So how do they do it? The secret behind the remarkable tenacity of the ‘Haložani’ in staying up after their surprise promotion in 2013 is the backing of local construction tycoon Miran Vuk.
Vuk, who doubles as the go-ahead mayor of the village, came on board to help Zavrč win promotion for five consecutive seasons from Slovenia’s sixth flight, beginning in 2006-2007.
Though finishing a respectable fifth for their first two seasons in the Prva Liga, the going has not been easy for the village team of Zavrč. The winter break of 2014-15 saw a clear-out of domestic players – the majority of the squad are now young Croatians, let go by cash-strapped clubs just over the border, most particularly Varaždin.
To balance this lack of experience, in the close season Zavrč signed ex-PAOK striker Zlatan Muslimović and Spanish midfielder Aitor Ruano. The 2015-16 campaign has already seen creditable draws with Maribor, high-flying Olimpija Ljubljana and Domžale, and wins in their two league games.
Again holding fifth spot, Zavrč welcome Maribor with a new stand holding 1,100, facilitated by the club bar, Zlati Gol (‘Golden Goal’) by the main entrance, with Premier League action on TV.
Zavrč-Maribor, Športni Park, 7pm, Saturday Sept 19.