Slovakia to rely on discipline
If ever a team came into the World Cup finals from out of the cold it is Slovakia. Needing just one point from its two remaining games, the Slovaks seemed set for a national celebration when they hosted Slovenia on Oct. 10. But the party was put on hold when Slovenia won 2-0, leaving Slovakia with the daunting task of clinching Group 3 on the road in Poland four days later. In snowbound conditions reminiscent of the 1984 Denver Broncos-Green Bay Packers "Monday Night Football" classic, the Cinderella Slovaks were helped by an unlikely fairy godmother: Polish defender Seweryn Gancarczyk. His third-minute own goal gave Slovakia the 1-0 win that sent it dashing through the snow to South Africa.
In the locker room after the game head coach Vladimir Weiss burst into tears as he described his joy, his pride in his players, and the anxiety after losing at home to Slovenia. Similar emotional scenes played out back home. In ice hockey-mad Slovakia (the national team won the 2002 world championship), suddenly soccer was king. One newspaper headline screamed, "Boys, We Love You," and a nationwide party was in full swing when the team plane landed at Bratislava airport at 4 a.m., with fans descending on the airport to greet the team.
A nation of 5 million people, Slovakia gained independence with the peaceful division of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993. FIFA, though, decided not to split Czechoslovakia's rich soccer history, instead awarding it all to the new Czech Republic. The main offshoot of that decision was that the Czechs retained all the FIFA ranking points, and Slovakia had to start from scratch, a huge disadvantage in seeding calculations for World Cup and Euro qualifying draws.
Despite that handicap, Slovakia almost qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals, losing to Spain in the playoffs. This time around few pundits expected the Slovaks to win a group featuring the Czechs and the Poles, and that success is universally credited to one man: Weiss.
Weiss played for Czechoslovakia at the 1990 World Cup (he made an eight-minute cameo in the 5-1 win over the U.S.), but he has made a much bigger mark as a head coach. Most notably, he led unheralded Artmedia Bratislava to the UEFA Champions League group stage in the 2005-06 season. He was appointed Slovakia head coach in June 2008, and has been widely praised for turning a seemingly modest team into a well-organized outfit.
Slovakia is built around 22-year-old Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik and Bochum striker Stanislav Sestak, whose six goals led the team in the qualifying campaign. "Retired" veteran Miroslav Karhan was recalled by Weiss to provide leadership and steel to the midfield. At the back, Liverpool's Martin Skrtel anchors the defense. But the player sure to receive the bulk of the press leading up to South Africa is the coach's son: Vladimir Jr.
A precocious talent, his father pitched the young midfielder into the team during qualifying, raising more than a few eyebrows and a few rumblings of nepotism. But Weiss the Younger is a technically gifted player with great pace who made a major impact after being inserted into the lineup in August 2009. The 20-year-old is not getting much time in the lineup at Manchester City though, but it's possible he will get a loan deal in the January 2010 transfer window that could rectify problem in time for the lead up to South Africa.
Weiss will be careful not to let his team think that reaching the World Cup finals is enough, that they can actually make an impact in South Africa. But taking that next step is very hard to do, as many newcomers to the finals have discovered in the past. And while there are certainly pockets of talent on Slovakia, it is essentially a team of journeymen that have made their nation proud or as Weiss described the national mood after the Poland win: "The nation has awakened, they believe in us." The coach will be hoping his team can ride that wave of emotion to more history in South Africa.
Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.