Tuesday, 16 February 2010

32 For 2010: Slovakia

It is easily forgotten that Slovakian football's finest hour was in 1976 when they won the European Championship as the second half of Czechoslovakia.

And it must be somewhat galling for proud Slovakians to find that many English language accounts of that dramatic final win against West Germany in the Marakana, Belgrade, refer to the winners as Czechs when, in fact, a the majority of that squad were Slovaks. These included their captain Anton Ondrus and the two goalscorers, Ján Švehlík and Karol Dobiaš (although Antonin Panenka, the player who score the decisive penalty in the dramatic Final shootout was a Czech).

There is no doubt that since the two nations unstitched themselves following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, the Czechs have fared better. However, with their qualification to the 2010 World Cup the indications are that Slovakia are rediscovering their footballing identity.

While Slovaks have played in World Cups as far back as 1934, Slovakia itself have not participated in the finals before. Current national team manager Vladimir Weiss was a member of the Czechoslovakian team that played in 1990, however there is not a great deal of collective World Cup experience to draw on. Slovakia's qualifying campaign in Group 3 was impressive - partly because they were drawn with their neighbours and former compatriots, the Czech Republic.

Slovakia had failed to beat their illustrious rivals in seven attempts since the nations split. That duck was broken last April in Prague as the home side were finally beaten 2-1. Other rivals in the group were Slovenia (eventual conquerors of Russia in the play-offs), Poland, Northern Ireland and San Marino. The Slovaks finished top of their group losing only twice to Slovenia on both occasions. Along with the historic win against the Czechs, Slovakia notched up some impressive away victories in Chorzow and Belfast.

In terms of their playing squad, there is a strong Bundesliga presence running though the Slovak team including Miroslav Karhan (Mainz), Peter Pekarík (Wolfsburg) and top scorer in the qualifiers Stanislav Šesták (Bochum). Erik Jendrisek who scored that famous winner against the Czechs in Prague plays for 2 Bundesliga team Kaiserslautern. Other players that English fans may know are Miroslav Stoch of Chelsea who is on loan at FC Twente, plus there's the boss' son Vladimir Weiss (Jnr) who is on loan at Bolton from his parent club Manchester City. Liverpool fans will know all about defender Martin Skrtel, of course.

Slovakia's best player is without question their captain Marek Hamsik of Napoli. The 22 year old midfielder has already scored eight goals in Serie A this season and is very much the future of Slovakian football, to use a dubious distinction.

Whether Hamsik has enough to inspire his team of mostly journeymen players to the second stage of the World Cup in South Africa is a difficult question to answer. While they should rightly be confident against New Zealand, Paraguay on the other hand will be tough opponents and the seeds are none other than World Champions Italy. Critics can also point to the ten goals they conceded in qualifying and some entirely unimpressive results in friendlies as evidence that Slovakia may struggle.

Nevertheless, should Slovakia continue to produce promising young players like Stoch and Weiss to join Hamsik, we can look forward to seeing them in future tournaments. With regards to the upcoming UEFA 2012 qualifying competition, Slovakia have an excellent chance of progressing if they can overcome either Russia or the Republic Of Ireland.

It's true that while we may never see a repeat of those magical scenes in the Marakana in 1976, Slovakia is at least emerging from the Czech's shadow.

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