A 'special goal machine' – meet Slovenia's danger man

Euro 2024 is fast becoming a tournament for the young stars – Slovenia’s Benjamin Sesko will be desperate to burst into that party.

A poster boy for the traditional ‘number nine’, Sesko is one of the most exciting young strikers in Europe and will already have seen the likes of Lamine Yamal, Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz make big impressions in Germany.

On Tuesday, the 21-year-old is at the centre of Slovenia’s ambitions to make the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time – knowing a win against England would secure qualification

He did not score in Slovenia’s opening two games at Euro 2024, draws against Denmark and Serbia, but Gareth Southgate’s men will know the RB Leipzig striker poses a huge threat.

‘No one knew he was so special’

The hopes of a nation may be on his shoulders, but in his fledgling career he has had no problem with pressure.

Last season, he scored 14 goals in 31 matches as he became a fans’ favourite in his first season at Leipzig, after a move from Red Bull Salzburg.

His form saw a number of top European clubs, including the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, register their interest before he signed a new deal in June to silence the speculation.

Miran Zore, a Slovenian journalist from Nogomania.com, said: “He left Slovenia very young at 16, when he transferred from Domzale to Salzburg. His talent was already there.

We kind of expected his success but no one knew he was so special, except his agent, Elvis Basanovic, who tried to convince people about his potential. He used to send messages to scouts and directors, saying, ‘this is the next goal machine’.

“When he was struggling in Salzburg at the start, people were asking his agent, ‘where’s this goal machine.’ Now, everyone is laughing about it.”

World-class players are not really that common in Slovenia, so that is why there have been big expectations.

Former Slovenian international and national team director, Miran Pavlin, said: “He’s very modest, coming from a small town and knows how to deal with all the things.

“He became a big star since a young age, but has stayed a normal guy and I’m sure he’ll stay like that in the future, too.”

Pavlin, a former Porto and Freiburg midfielder, played at two big tournaments for Slovenia – Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup – and knows the expectations on Sesko’s shoulders.

“[Pressure] is good for him,” he added. “Even if he has to deal with it as a youngster. We at the federation try to take the pressure away.

“People expect him to score every game, but that’s not possible in football. In the first two games, he worked for the team and was very good. We’ll be happy if he scores against England.”

‘Comparisons to Haaland are lazy’

Sesko’s meteoric rise has led to comparisons with Erling Haaland, Manchester City’s prolific Norwegian.

He has already said he studies Haaland’s game on YouTube and, after playing against him in an international friendly in September 2022, he made sure he was the one to swap shirts.

Sesko is 6ft 4ins tall, but that does not limit him when it comes to mobility and speed, similarly to Haaland. “Such comparisons motivate me and give me energy,” he said.

“Haaland is a finisher, but Sesko is a different type of player,” said Zore. “He chases the defenders all over the place, is strong in the air, a great finisher and can also shoot from outside the box.

“The comparison with Haaland came due to his similar height and career path. But I think Haaland is a penalty box player, while Sesko is far more. He can be also a playmaker in the attack, opening space.”

While Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak is Slovenia’s most recognisable player, Sesko is undoubtedly their biggest threat.

He scored his first international goal at the age of 18 years and one day and became the team’s top scorer in Euro 2024 qualifying, with five in nine appearances.

‘He can be one of the best in the world’

Sudden stardom has not fazed him, though.

“He has the biggest marketing potential among all Slovenian players, but he’s very modest,” said Zore.

“He always takes pictures with kids after the games, sometimes it can last more than 30 minutes. He is a kind of national hero, but very humble and open.”

Sesko still has that passion for football – the sport he fell in love with while growing up in Radece, a small town in the south-east of Slovenia. He also played basketball, only choosing football when he was 15.

That proved to be a life-changing decision, as he now emerges onto the radar of top clubs across Europe.

His agents had conversations with Serie A and Premier League clubs and he even had an offer from Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, he opted to stay for at least one more season at Leipzig and signed a new contract until 2029.

However, Sesko is still destined for a big move in the upcoming seasons.

“He has to focus on playing well and the transfer will come, if not this year, then in one or two years. He has the potential to be one of the top 10 strikers in the world, for sure,” Pavlin said.

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