"I Believe That Slovenia Can Defeat England": Vanja Drkušić On Sochi And Euro 2024 Expectations

Alisa Barladyan
24 Jun 2024

At the end of the season, Sochi left the Russian Premier League, although the team played well enough to keep their place in the elite. While the club will have to spend at least a year in the First League, its captain, Vanja Drkušić, may join a top Premier League club this summer!

But right now, Vanja can only think about Euro 2024 where he will soon represent Slovenia. Just before the main tournament in his life, we discussed the club's failures and preparation for the European championship. From this interview, you will learn:

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Vanja Drkušić, Sochi
  • if Vanja had time to rest between the Russian Premier League and the Euro;
  • who is Slovenia national team's main star;
  • why Ronaldo and Félix are no different from Córdoba and Tyukavin;
  • what makes Konstantin the best player in the Russian Premier League;
  • who speaks the best Spanish in Sochi.

— This season was hard, and the European Championship is coming soon. Will you have time to rest and recover?

— I think so. Frankly speaking, the season was really tough. But that's life. Now, I am with my national team and need to move further.

— You had three days off from your last match until the start of the training camp. Did you visit some places?

— No. I went to Slovenia and spent time with my family.

— How will you adjust to this great event after such a terrible season with Sochi?

Vanja Drkušić
I wouldn't say it's so difficult. I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. But after the match against Krasnodar, I got very sad. Every cycle in your life passes. You think about it for a few days, but then you should forget it. You should be ready to do your best in every match.

— Did you think about the Euro during the last Premier League tours?

— No. I've been waiting for the opportunity to play at such a level as the Euro for a long time. But in Sochi, I thought only about the team and its results.

Vanja Drkušić, Slovenia national team
Vanja Drkušić, Slovenia national team
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— In what shape are you now, before the championship?

— We are training very hard. I look forward to the first match.

— What's the team's goal at Euro 2024?

— I don't know what goal we will have. We don't want to put ourselves under pressure. We know and feel we have a strong team, and we go to Germany to show good play.

— That's the first big tournament in your career. Are you nervous?

— To be honest, yes, of course! But I mostly feel positive.

— Who's the Slovenia national team's main star: Šeško or Oblak?

— Oblak because he's our captain. He has been playing at the top level for Atlético for several years. Šeško played very well in the Bundesliga this season. He is a talented player.

— Slovenia got to the Euro for the second time in history. Is there a sense of excitement in the country?

— There is euphoria. You can see that everyone was looking forward to the Euro matches. I guess many Slovenians will support us in Germany.

— How many local fans will come to Germany?

— I think 50-60 thousand Slovenians.

— Do you believe that Slovenia can make it to the playoffs? What qualities will help it?

— Of course I do. I wouldn't have become a football player if I didn't believe in it. Our main quality is the atmosphere; we are all good friends — on the field and in the locker room.

— What do you think of your Euro group?

Vanja Drkušić
I expect an even game with Denmark and Serbia. England is a favorite. But it's football; everything can happen.

— Can Slovenia defeat England?

— I believe, yes.

— The English roster is the most expensive in the world. What do you feel about it?

— We all know that the English team is excellent. All their players play for the top clubs. I think they are one of the tournament favorites. But we will do our best and try to win.

— Who is the strongest player on the England national team?

— Kane is a top forward. He is the most dangerous player on the English team.

— Who would you call the favorites besides England?

— Slovenia (laughs). France and Germany.

— What will you say about the Serbia national team?

— They have good players. This team is very dangerous.

— They have recently lost 0-4 to Russia. You have said that Slovenia is stronger than Russia. What does that match mean?

— I have no idea. Serbia has a really strong team. We will play against it at the Euro, so it will be a completely different game.

Dragan Stojković and Aleksandar Mitrović, Serbia national team
Dragan Stojković and Aleksandar Mitrović, Serbia national team

— Every year, we have discoveries at the big tournaments: Greece, Iceland, Denmark... Are you ready to become a discovery?

— Yes!

— What do you think of the Denmark team? Last year, they made it to the semifinals.

— We encountered Denmark at the qualifiers. We played 1-1 at home and lost 1-2 away. That's a good team with a Scandinavian spirit. We know we can play against them. I believe we may defeat them if we play well.

— Your teammate is former CSKA player Jaka Bijol. Does he ask you about your previous team or the Russian Premier League?

Vanja Drkušić
Of course, we talk about the League. He said he missed Russia. Jaka and I have known each other for a long time. We played on the youth teams, and now we often chat.

— In March, you came off the bench in the friendly game against Portugal. Even though you didn't play much, did you experience the top-team vibe?

— Well, I didn't. I played for 5 minutes. I hope I'll feel it at the European Championship.

— Ronaldo and Félix were on the field. How do you take the ball away from them?

— Just like from Tyukavin and Córdoba. They're ordinary people. Yes, Félix and Ronaldo are extremely good players, but it doesn't matter who you play against. You need to do everything to win.

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— You moved to Russia at the beginning of 2022 when the world was stable and Sochi was competing for medals. Were you dissatisfied after the move?

— I wouldn't say so. Moving to Russia was a big step in my career because I came from a small town in Slovenia. After that, we won silver, but in the next season, the team started to change coaches. However, we played well. But this season was unsuccessful.

— You didn't expect anything else, did you? Fighting for the championship, the European Cups...

— I was just happy that I was given a chance to play in the Russian Premier League.

— Did you have other options besides Sochi?

— Yes, I had several offers from other countries, but not as interesting as Sochi.

— What was so exciting about Sochi?

— I checked the Premier League table. They were in third place at the time. I looked at the city and stadium photos and moved there.

— You came to Vladimir Fedotov, who had left the team six months later. Were you surprised by his decision?

Vanja Drkušić
Vladimir Fedotov did a good job, and we had an excellent season. It's okay to prove yourself in football and get noticed. But at that time, nobody talked about him leaving. When it was announced, I was surprised. But that's normal.

— After he left, didn't the team find its game?

— Well, yes. The club has changed a lot, and things haven't gone our way.

— What did working with Fedotov give you?

— He offered me a chance, and I proved myself in Russia. He gave me confidence because the transfer from Slovenia wasn't a piece of cake. Especially because I moved to the club that fought for silver.

— Fedotov has recently left CSKA, but would you have agreed if he had invited you to join him in Moscow?

— He didn't invite me. CSKA is one of the best Russian clubs. But if he had done it, why not?

Vladimir Fedotov, Sochi
Vladimir Fedotov, Sochi
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— You learned Russian in 18 months and speak better than many who have lived here for years. How did you learn it so fast?

— I didn't speak Russian in the first year, as I was too shy. I was told I should talk to the guys in the locker room, and it was no big deal if I made a mistake. The main thing is to speak Russian. It helped because I have many friends on the team.

— Did someone help you? Perhaps, Noboa?

— I spoke to him in English. Makarchuk, Kravtsov, Miladinović, and Đorđević helped me the most. Their Russian was very good.

— Did you consult an interpreter often?

— Not really. Soon, I started to understand all the football words. I understood 80% of Fedotov's speech in three months, so I didn't need an interpreter.

— Did you learn Russian yourself?

— I had a friend in Slovenia who spoke Russian very well. I chatted with her several times, and she helped me at first. I guess I am gifted in languages. I learned Dutch and Italian quickly, too.

— How many languages do you know now?

Vanja Drkušić
Now I speak five languages fluently. And two or three more at the intermediate level. I understand Italian and Spanish. I studied German at school for 6 years. But I can't communicate fluently. However, I speak Slovenian, Serbian, Russian, English, and Dutch.

— Why do you need so many languages?

— It helps in life. Right now, we have Robert Moreno here; he speaks Spanish. I understood what he said at our meetings and interpreted his words for the other players.

— So, you don't learn languages to adapt to the top championship?

— Not because of that. I just love learning languages and using them abroad.

— Are you the only polyglot in Sochi?

— Kirill Kravtsov's Spanish is better than mine. He also speaks English, so he knows at least 3 languages. Basically, everyone on the team knows their mother tongue and English.

— Are Slovenian and Russian alike?

— Of course, there are some similar words, but when I heard Russian for the first time, I thought I would never learn it. Serbian is also similar to Russian, so learning the language was easier for me.

Vanja Drkušić, Sochi
Vanja Drkušić, Sochi

— Do any of your teammates know Russian?

— Kramarič practices a lot. All the guys try to learn the language because Russian people like it when foreigners know their language.

— Weren't you worried that you were moving to Sochi? I can't call it a football city.

— No, I wasn't. I liked Sochi at first sight. Besides, I didn't have many offers from Russia.

— What encouraged you to move to Russia? Did something catch your attention?

— I liked that Sochi was third in the championship. Then I looked at the stadium and the city. After that, I decided I wanted to move here.

— What has disappointed you in Russia and made you happy?

Vanja Drkušić
I can say that Sochi is not a typical Russian city. When I saw our camp and the stadium and walked along the embankment, I realized I wanted to live here. I'm still not disappointed with anything. I'm happy with my decision. What do I like most of all? There are many restaurants, great weather, delicious food, and palm trees.

— Do you often eat out?

— When I live alone. And when my girlfriend comes from Slovenia, I eat at home.

— Do you have a favorite Russian dish?

— I love borscht! I could eat it every day. I often order it at restaurants.

— And alcohol?

— Not so often.

— Do you like Russian beer?

— I've tried Russian beer, but I can't say I was impressed. Slovenian beer is also pretty good, but I'm not an expert.

Vanja Drkušić, Sochi
Vanja Drkušić, Sochi
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— The season was successful at first, but everything went downhill. The team had only 1 win in 14 games. What happened?

— I can't say anything specific. We just weren't lucky; we often lost at the last minute.

— Did you discuss the possible relegation?

Vanja Drkušić
No, we didn't want to think about that. We always hoped to stay in the Premier League but failed.

— Didn't Tochilin, a coach then, gather you and say that you should rectify the situation?

— Of course, he did. We knew things weren't going well but never thought we would tumble out. We always tried to change something.

— On May 10, you said you didn't believe Sochi could be relegated. And 8 days later, the team left the league. Did you really believe that you wouldn't quit?

— Of course! Even when our chances were low. A footballer should believe in their team until the end.

— In winter, the team was renewed, and that changed its pattern of play and results. Don't you feel that the team would have achieved more if this roster had been assembled earlier?

— We really readjusted in winter and began to play better than in the first part of the season. If Sochi had had the current roster from the beginning, we would have stayed in the Premier League.

— Have you tried to shake the team up?

— I discussed our results with the guys, but that doesn't mean they went out on the field and did their best. Yes, we talked about that, but it hasn't changed anything. I didn't try to motivate the guys. I just wanted to improve myself so my teammates would improve their skills and change their attitude looking at me.

Vanja Drkušić, Sochi
Vanja Drkušić, Sochi

— When did the team lose heart?

— We have never lost heart. When we played in Krasnodar, we believed we would save ourselves. We lost heart only when we realized we couldn't avoid relegation.

— What happened in the locker rooms after the loss to Krasnodar and the relegation?

— Not much. Everyone was disappointed. There was a dead silence. Then Moreno told us he would stay in the club. He announced that because he wanted to bring confidence to the team. It was great to hear that a coach like Moreno decided to stay with the club. He respected and trusted us.

— In spring, you were often close to victory. What was missing? Was it just a streak of bad luck?

— Yes, it was. The players were under great pressure. There were many matches where we played well and were better than our opponents, but we couldn't win.

— How has Moreno changed the team?

Vanja Drkušić
He has modified the system: we started to play with four defenders. Moreno is a foreign coach who has worked for good European clubs. He brought more professionalism and confidence to the team and took training to a different level.

— Many Sochi players say that Moreno is a top coach. What makes him a top?

— He's really a good coach. I would say he has a lot of experience. He is very good at analyzing the opponents and preparing the team for them.

— Will he be interested in playing in the First League? That's a completely different level.

— Yes, I agree. Most players will stay in Sochi, and everything will be alright.

Robert Moreno, Sochi
Robert Moreno, Sochi

— Have you said goodbye to the team?

— Not yet. I haven't. Now, I am on the Slovenia team and am focused on it. We'll see what happens after the European Championship.

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— Many have written that the Russian Premier League clubs are interested in you. What do you know about that?

— I've read the news. I told my agents I wanted to concentrate on my national team. They will call me if there is something specific.

— So, if you have an offer, you can transfer to another Russian club, right?

— Everything depends on the offer, but I liked Russia. If there is a good offer after the Euro, we will discuss it.

— Where would you like to move: to a Russian Premier League club or Europe?

Vanja Drkušić
To be honest, I don't know. I wish both to go to Europe and play for a top Russian club.

— A Russian top club or an average European team?

— That's a hard question. I need to think, and I cannot answer right away.

— Does the opportunity to play in the European Cups influence your choice?

— Not really. I gained international experience playing for the Slovenia team. Of course, I dream of playing in the Champions League, but I liked Russia and would stay here.

— How do you feel about the ban on Russian clubs?

— We are football players, and that's our job. We must accept this decision and fight for the Russian Premier League and the Russian Cup scores. The fact that we don’t play in the European Cups is not our fault.

— When the league selected the best coach, you voted for Lička. Why? Why is he the best?

— I think he has done a very good job with Dynamo. They were the first until the last tour and had the biggest opportunity to win the Russian Premier League. That's why I voted for them.

Konstantin Tyukavin, Dynamo
Konstantin Tyukavin, Dynamo

— And who's the best football player?

— For me, it's Tyukavin.

— Is he ready for Europe?

Vanja Drkušić
Sure. In this season, he demonstrated a lot of good qualities. They will help him to play in Europe.

— Who was harder to play against?

— Tyukavin was a little harder to deal with. He is good at catching the ball and has been lucky this season.

— Safonov is transferring to PSG. Will he be successful?

— I hope so. I wish him good luck.

— You've said that you recommend that everyone you know visit Russia. Which places exactly?

— I've been to Krasnodar and liked it very much. When the Slovenians ask me about Sochi, I have difficulty describing the city's beauty and how cool it is to live here.

— And do you like Moscow or Saint Petersburg?

— Of course, they are beautiful, but I prefer small provincial towns. I enjoy strolling along the empty streets, not the crowded ones.

— What is your favorite city here?

— I'd say Sochi.

— For many foreigners, the Russian winter becomes a real challenge. Was it hard to get used to the low temperatures?

— Honestly, I haven't played much in winter outside of Sochi. And winters there are warm. I remember how we played in Moscow in early December. That's when I experienced the Russian winter for the first time. But I haven't taken part in really cold matches.

— After you moved to Russia, the Slovenia national team started asking you to join it. Do you understand what you have improved?

— I started to train and play at a high level. Of course, all my qualities have improved, and I have become stronger as a footballer during my time in the Russian Premier League.

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