Slovenian football has achieved some remarkable feats since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, considering the small size of the country. It took them just eight years to establish a football team that qualified for a major tournament as Slovenia beat Ukraine in the playoffs to qualify for Euro 2000. That generation, managed by Slovene football legend and former Stuttgart defender Srečko Katanec, had Olympiakos’ Zlatko Zahovič as its star player and he was surrounded by teammates who mostly plied their trade in neighbouring Austria and in their own country. Just two years later, they qualified for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea and since then have become regular contenders for qualification in the European groups, having qualified for the World Cup of 2010 and narrowly missed out on Euro 2004.
With Slovenia now firmly on the footballing map, many German sides started looking to this small country for cheap talent, especially the Bundesliga, with seven players arriving since their Euro 2000 exploits, most notably Milivoje Novaković to Köln in (2006), Mišo Brečko to HSV (2004) and Aleksander Knavs to Kaiserslautern (2001). All three of them, particularly the first two, went to have excellent careers in Germany; Novaković scored 44 Bundesliga goals for Köln, Brečko has amassed 142 appearances in the Bundesliga and a further 92 in the 2. Bundesliga, now playing for 1. FC Köln, and Knavs spent four years in Germany with FCK and Bochum before moving across the border to Salzburg. The Bundesliga currently boasts no Slovenian players but the 2. Bundesliga and the 3. Liga currently have a quota of Slovenian players that stands at 2.5% and 3.7% respectively, with the former having reached a number as high as 4.2% in 2006.
One Slovenian player who might be making the jump to the Bundesliga some time soon is Freiburg’s new 20-year-old defender Denis Perger. Perger was a summer signing from FC Luka Koper in Slovenia for a mere 30.000€ and is a left-back who can also play on the right if needed. Perger has represented Slovenia throughout all the youth levels, currently part of the U21 side, for whom he made his debut last February against Portugal in a 0-0 draw.
Perger began his career at NK Drava Ptuj, his hometown team, making such an impression that he was handed a 6-month youth contract at Parma in 2010. After his Italian experience, Perger returned to Drava and made just 15 appearances in the 2.SNL second division before being snapped up by first division side FC Luka Koper in 2011. He established himself definitively at Koper in the 2012/2013 season, making 21 first-team appearances in league and cup. His performances were of such a high standard that they attracted interest from none other than Borussia Dortmund, who promptly signed him up on trial. Being at Dortmund was an experience that Perger labelled as “another world” but while things did not quite work out for him there, Freiburg were quick to snap up the young Slovene straight away but, in order to get match experience, Perger was loaned to 3. Liga outfit Wehen Wiesbaden straight away. Freiburg sport director Klemens Hartenbach stated that “Denis is a young full-back with a very good future” adding that “he will be able to gain match practice with a high level of exigency at Wehen Wiesbaden.”
Wehen Wiesbaden’s start to the season was fantastic, with Peter Vollmann’s side quickly positioning themselves in the promotion spots with Perger as their starting left-back. However, a four-game slump in form saw them lose their promotion spot and put Vollmann on the brink of the sack. Their clash against 1. FC Heidenheim in late October proved to be a negative turning point for Perger, as he was unjustly sent off for a tackle on Heidenheim midfielder Sven Sökler. Replays showed that Sökler made the most of it and that there was in fact no contact between both players but a two-match suspension came with the tackle which meant that Perger lost his place in the starting lineup. New manager Marc Kienle replaced the previously-sacked Vollmann a week later but, without Perger in the side, has failed to turn around Wehen’s fortunes, recording just two victories in the seven matches he has been in charge.
Perger’s inclusion in the side once again is a matter of time, as Kienle’s search for stability in the lineup is clearly not working, with Wehen conceding more goals per match without Perger than with him. Perger’s talent is unquestionable, a fact proved by the faith that German and Italian scouts have put in him, and Transfermarkt‘s value of him at 200.000€ despite only costing 30.000€ a few months ago speaks volumes. One cannot help but feel he needs a prolonged run in the side to prove his full worth, like he had in Slovenia, but he feels more comfortable going “step by step” and sees Freiburg as a “perfect” club to be at. Still only 20 years of age, he still has plenty to learn and improve on but the promise he has shown so far playing in a new country and in a new culture and environment is highly encouraging, with his stint at Wehen being a positive one that will allow him to keep on learning and getting match practice. This season in Wiesbaden will get him acquainted with German football, a transition that is by no means easy taking into consideration the new language and improved quality of football, but it is one he is overcoming with surprising ease. His status will be reassessed by Freiburg in the summer, with another loan move most likely on the cards. Nevertheless, whether it is to a 3. Liga or a 2. Bundesliga side, Perger’s learning curve will be ascending and will aid him in his quest to reach the Bundesliga and the Slovene national squad. All in all, there is little doubt that Freiburg have a diamond in the rough that could be giving Christian Günter a run for his money sooner rather than later.
You can listen to an exclusive interview with Denis Perger on the latest issue of Aufstieg Podcast by clicking here
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