By Yarone Arbel
With a capacity of 20,000, the Belgrade Arena is one of the largest and most modern basketball facilities in Europe. Every one of those seats was sold out months before the opening tip as fans in Serbia & Montenegro expected their side to contend for EuroBasket gold.
Fast forward to just before the quarter-final stage of the competition and with the home side crashing out against France, suddenly a full Belgrade Arena seemed a distant prospect.
In fact, attendance was excellent on the first day of the quarter-finals as 18,000 turned up to watch Greece vs. Russia and France vs. Lithuania.
However, with Slovenia due to take to the court on Friday against Germany for their first ever EuroBasket quarter-final, a full Belgrade Arena looks a certainty.
1,500 Slovenian fans already have tickets to the quarter-finals and an extra 5,000 are expected to make the trip to Belgrade on Friday.
|Slovenian have been celebrating with their fans throughout the tournament|
In Group C of the preliminary round there was no doubt which team had the upper hand in the stands. Thousands of Slovenians filled almost every seat in the Pionir Arena, and pushed their team to a 3-0 record, enough to win first place in the group and book a direct ticket to the quarter-finals.
The supporters also made their presence felt in downtown Belgrade, and there were reports of bars running out of alcohol as the Slovenians celebrated deep into the night following each of their team's victories.
Cheap train tickets and the short distance between Ljubljana and Belgrade will enable more Slovenians to join the party in case their team reaches the semi-finals, although domestic travel agencies are having problems finding enough buses to transport all the fans
Of course not everybody can make it to Belgrade, but there are plenty of people in Slovenia who are enjoying their team's success.
"Big euphoria" are the words Jaka Lopatic, of the Slovenian site "SiOL Sportal" (Sportal.siol.net), chose to describe the atmosphere in his home country. "It's like when our football team was playing in Euro. All the people now have high expectations because the team is playing very good and we have many fans to support them,” he said.
"Right now everything is about basketball in Slovenia" added Lopatic. "If the level of interest before the games started was 6, now there's no doubt it's a clear 10".
The support of the fans and the atmosphere back home is a comforting presence among the Slovenian team. After each game in the preliminary round coach Pipan and the players never missed a chance to thank the fans, and ask them for even more support in the next games.
Slovenia is only 3 wins short from the gold medal, and according to Lopatic, the fans could provide the team with the extra boos they need to reach the podium.
"All the team is saying they hope they'll have the same or even more support than in Pionir. They believe that with them they can go all the way".