Slovakia is making its World Cup finals maiden voyage and has to be hoping it goes smoother than the Czech Republic's first sole qualification four years ago (the two were united as one country until partition in 1993). After thrashing the USA 3-0, the Czechs were then bounced unceremoniously by Italy and Ghana and failed to survive the group stage.
Since the end of World War II, Slovakia was half of Czechoslovakia and contributed many of the joint country's best players, including the majority of the team that captured the 1976 European Championship. Since independence, though, Slovakia has failed to qualify in 1998, 2002 and 2006.
The Slovaks topped UEFA's Group 3 -- which included the Czech Republic -- to gain a berth for South Africa 2010, scoring 22 goals in 10 matches. Needing a point from its final qualifier -- at Poland -- to secure automatic qualification, Slovakia won 1-0 thanks to an own goal to earn a trip to its first World Cup.
Coach: Vladimir Weiss
Weiss has been at the helm since 2008 and has become a cult hero of sorts after leading his country through its successful qualifying campaign. He shares the same name with his former player-manager father and his son, who is a promising attacking player for Manchester City on loan to Bolton and is also on the national team. With 43 career goals as a midfielder in about 250 club games mainly at Inter Bratislava, the 46-year-old Weiss spent the bulk of his coaching career at club Artmedia Petrzalka before taking on the national team job.
Style of play
Slovakia's style is prototypically east-central European, with a good dosage of rugged, stout-hearted players who give nothing away, are tactically astute and technically proficient with several players capable of demonstrating attacking flair. The Slovaks are known to play a 4-4-2 formation and are not opposed to their wide backs getting into the attack.
Players to watch
1. Martin Skrtel. Liverpool's Skrtel gives the Slovaks a top-flight central defender to marshal the back line. The 6-foot-3 defender was also a promising ice hockey player, and has made 74 appearances for Liverpool in three seasons.
2. Jan Mucha.Goalkeeper Mucha, who is moving to Everton from Legia Warsaw, is expected to be the country's No. 1. His move to England was on a free transfer and the player could give incumbent Tim Howard competition for the starting spot.
3. Stanislav Sestak.The team's top scorer in qualifying, Sestak contributed six goals in 10 games and has hit the back of the net 10 times in 29 games for Slovakia. An energetic striker, Sestak is known to always be in motion and tends to make runs to the right side. He has scored 29 times for Bochum over the last three seasons.
Marek Hamsik. An attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, Hamsik has impressed with Italian side Napoli the past couple of years, leading the team with 12 Serie A goals this past season. The versatile and gifted 22-year-old made his debut for his country's national team in 2007, and he will be counted on to provide a creative influence for Slovakia at the World Cup.
Robert Vittek. The 28-year-old striker had an impressive season four years ago in Germany, scoring 16 goals for Nuremberg. His production has fallen off since then, and after a move to Lille in France he now plays professionally with Turkish side Ankaragucu. Vittek was his usual industrious self in nine World Cup qualifiers, but failed to hit the net once.
Three key questions
1. Can Slovakia accomplish what the Czech Republic could not? Slovakia comes into its first World Cup in a discreet manner with a No. 34 FIFA world ranking, four years after the Czech Republic pranced into its first appearance ranked a gaudy No. 4 but failed to reach the knockout round. In a group expected to be won by defending champion Italy, can the Slovaks do what the Czechs couldn't and qualify into the second round over opponents Paraguay and New Zealand?
2. Will the World Cup appearance lift soccer's image in the country? The country's top sport traditionally has been ice hockey, with soccer a distant second. Slovakia's footballers are hoping a successful campaign can bridge the gap and bring soccer more into the mindset of the nation's people.
3. Can Vladimir Weiss, the 21-year-old on loan to Bolton from Manchester City, get some playing time? Highly considered by Eastlands coach Roberto Mancini, the skilled and fleet-footed winger couldn't get ample playing time for a Man City team loaded with older stars. A player of the future for his country, is he ready for the biggest stage of them all?
G Jan Mucha, Everton (England)
D Martin Skrtel, Liverpool (England)
D Jan Durica, Hannover (Germany)
D Peter Pekarik, Wolfsburg (Germany)
D Radoslav Zabavnik, Mainz (Germany)
M Miroslav Karhan, Mainz (Germany)
M Vladimir Weiss, Bolton (England)
M Marek Hamsik, Napoli (Italy)
M Miroslav Stoch, Twente (Netherlands)
F Stanislav Sestak, Bochum (Germany)
F Robert Vittek, Ankaragucu (Turkey)