Slovenian minnows NK Domzale will be be out to ruin West Ham’s first game at the Olympic stadium on Thursday when they meet in the second leg of their Europa League qualifying third-round tie.
Luka Elsner’s side “made history” in the first leg with a shock 2-1 win against the Hammers, the biggest result in the club’s 95-year existence.
It was a remarkable achievement given the disparity between the two sides.
This is a club that cannot afford to pay transfer fees, that is forced to sell its best players every couple of years, with a team ethic inspired by the Hollywood film 300 and a young manager in the mould of Diego Simeone.
Before Thursday’s match, Elsner tells BBC Sport about his coaching philosophy, the club’s novel approach to transfers and his Domzale “army”.
West Ham were without France international Dimitri Payet but still fielded a strong side in Slovenia, including record £15m signing Andy Carroll.
The likes of Payet and Carroll earn thousands each week, contrasting sharply with the financial pulling power of Domzale.
“A week’s salary of any of the West Ham players would be enough to cover the club’s expenses for a whole month,” said 34-year-old Elsner. “It is a big difference. It would probably cost 60,000 or 70,000 euros [£50,500-£58,900] to run the club for a month.”
It is not just in salaries that Domzale are dwarfed by their Premier League rivals.
West Ham’s new stadium has a 60,000 capacity, which could hold the 12,588 residents of Domzale almost five times over. By contrast, Domzale play their home games at Sports Park, a stadium that can handle 2,813.
It is so small that the first leg was moved to the Stozice Stadium in Ljubljana. Barely 3,000 attended the first leg, but a sell-out is expected on Thursday.
Domzale cannot afford to pay transfer fees. The aim is to develop players and sell them on at a profit.
“We never keep one team for two or three years together because we need to sell to survive,” Elsner said. “We are constantly changing our first 11.”
The club survives on a network of scouts and coaches trying to unearth talent at home and abroad.
“Slovenia is a small market. We play four times against each team, each season, so we know exactly what players are available,” Elsner added.
“In terms of scouting, it’s tough. We can’t pay transfer fees, so we have to look for something that maybe other teams don’t see.
“This is the philosophy of the club. We will never have the finances to allow us to spend big but hopefully we have new ideas and really take care of players.”
Signing a player via LinkedIn
Elsner says his club do not want “mercenaries” but are looking for a player with a certain type of character.
“We like to take players that maybe have talent but who haven’t managed to take that last step to become a really good player,” he said. “We give them the possibility to do that and work with them in the hope they develop enough.
“Before we look at their football characteristics, we are looking for good men, with a good personality, who are willing to work. If we have to push someone and be behind them 24 hours a day, then they are not for us.
“In the last three seasons we have sold almost 12 players to other clubs. That is a good story for everyone coming to us.”
Domzale found a novel way to sign a player in February, using the online networking service LinkedIn.
After Elsner posted a message asking for an “offensive right-back” who “must have an EU passport”, the top-flight club received 150 applications and signed Spanish defender Alvaro Brachi, 30, just before transfer deadline day.
Elsner said: “We have a low budget, we can only afford players with no transfer fees and can only give a salary. That takes a lot of work and imagination. We once used LinkedIn as a possibility and it worked, Alvaro is playing well for us.”
This is Sparta!
Domzale players are shown films to motivate them and inspire a team ethic.
One of those is Hollywood movie 300, starring Gerard Butler. It is the story of King Leonidas leading 300 Spartans to victory over the Persian “god-King” Xerxes and his 300,000 soldiers.
“We are an army, we need to stick together to even have a chance of competing,” Elsner said. “West Ham have so much quality that if we did not work as a group then we would not have had a chance.
“Like 300, we are small and outnumbered, but we do everything we can to hold our position. We use a lot of motivational stuff through the season. The mental side is huge. We want to be ready to fight on the field.”
Simeone Mark II?
Elsner had a successful playing career, winning two Slovenian league titles with Domzale and making one appearance for the national side. He is also Domzale’s record appearance holder.
His grandfather is former Austria manager Branko Elsner, while his father, Marko Elsner, won Olympic football bronze with Yugoslavia in 1984.
Elsner retired in 2012 to pursue a coaching career. He is among the youngest in Europe and looks to others for inspiration. Among them is Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone, whom Elsner admires for his ability to create a team ethic.
“I stopped my playing career because I had a passion to be a coach,” Elsner said. “I wanted to do it early, get experience. Many questioned my decision, because I could have played on for three or four years.”