Slovakia: Rising Fortunes In The East

The date is June the 24th. A Thursday, to be precise. Slovakian right-back Peter Pekarik picks the ball up from out of play under an overcast sky. The defender has just seen his teammate, Robert Vittek, fire past the Italian stand-in goalkeeper Marchetti to give the unfavoured Slovakians a 2-1 lead. Effortlessly and precisely he spots a white shirt driving across the turf, untracked by the supposedly imperious defence of the Italian world champions. In an instant he throws the ball in the direction of the man in that white shirt, the substitute Kamil Kopunek, who delicately and brilliantly plugs the ball over the already twice beaten Marchetti and into the net. 3-1. Game over. Well, apart from an extravagant Fabio Quagliarella chip to make the scores 3-2.

Slovakia, due to that result, progressed through the World Cup group stages at the expense of holding champions Italy but ultimately fell to the combination of steel and artistry displayed by eventual finalists Holland.

The World Cup represented a milestone for the Slovakian national team as they successfully qualified for their first ever international tournament as an independent nation, with Vladimir Weiss’ team providing a more than reasonable account of themselves in their debut on the world stage. Add that to the batch of technically gifted young Slovak players, such as Marek Hamsik and the manager’s son Vladimir Weiss Junior, progressing into the mainstream of European football and Slovakia, as a nation, is enjoying a growing reputation within Europe.

The successes at international level have been built upon by the current league champions MSK Zilina as Pavel Hapal’s yellow-clad side confidently overcame the more experienced continental travellers Sparta Prague 3-0, over two legs, to progress into the Champions League group stages. Despite having the pain of double defeats to Chelsea, Marseille and Spartak Moscow inflicted upon them, Zilina gained an added interest continentally for both themselves and Slovakia as a whole to complement the World Cup performances.

Defeat at the weekend to Tatran Presov, only their second this season, at the continuation of the Slovak league season caps off a less than satisfactory run for the championship favourites as they have failed to achieve victory in their past three outings. Regardless of their recent poor form Hapal’s side remain affixed to the top of the table with even the nation’s most celebrated manager Dr Jozef Vengloš suggesting “it looks like Žilina will end up winning it again.” It, therefore, appears that the Slovakian side will again earn the chance to test themselves at the fulcrum of European club football, in turn, promoting the rise of Slovak football exponentially following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Vengloš, however, is an interesting character, well travelled and experienced in the European scene after spells as the manager of Sporting Clube de Portugal, Aston Villa, Fenerbahçe and Celtic. Having gained a doctorate in physical education, the former Slovan Bratislava boss has now taken a back-seat role in football, regularly guest speaking at FIFA academies across the world.

Speaking to the official UEFA website, Vengloš acknowledged the rise in Slovak football and a rise in attendances and passion towards the game following the World Cup, but the Doctor reflected on his time in the British Isles when outlining how the Slovak fan experience could improve: “if clubs want more fans to come to games, the players have to look for inspiration from the top European leagues, like England’s Premier League. The atmosphere there is fantastic, the same in Scotland too.”

Whilst also calling for an increased impetus to be placed on improving the sporting infrastructure of the nation, the experienced former manager has witnessed a recent dip in the footballing fortunes of the Slovak national team. Weiss’ side have come into criticism as, after impressive victories over both Russia and Macedonia, Slovakia suffered the unfamiliar bite of defeat to minnows Andorra before a laborious draw against The Republic of Ireland, leaving them 4th in their European Championship qualifying group. Whilst these results may represent a metaphorical clip on the wings of Slovakian football, Dr Jozef Vengloš remains hopeful of Weiss’ side, suggesting the poor run of results is “no reason to be pessimistic or stop coming to the matches. All big teams have bad periods.”

Oh well Fabio, you can’t have it all.

On the 10th of June 2006 England played their opening World Cup game against Paraguay. And nobody like him. On the 1st of July 2006 England lost to Portugal on penalties and were eliminated from the tournament. And everybody loved him.

England’s star of that tournament started off as the inclusion in Sven-Goran Erikkson’s squad that people loved to hate. His name was, and still is, Owen Hargreaves. The central midfielder proved to be the key man in the England squad by the end of the tournament. His form being so impressive that Sir Alex Ferguson delved deep into his pockets to prize the English-German-Canadian midfielder from Bayern Munich. His successor to the mantle of zero to hero? Emile Heskey.

The Aston Villa striker has not been impressive over the course of this season leading to many pundits suggesting that England should play a 4-4-1-1 system with Steven Gerrard playing of Wayne Rooney. These pundits however do not see the tactical advantage that Emile Heskey brings to the England team when playing in the latter stages of the tournament. The very best defenders these days can deal with lightning pace and devilish trickery, however, brute strength and the ability to stick your rear out are two qualities that defenders in the modern age have forgotten how to deal with.

With Heskey in the team Rooney has the freedom of South Africa, he can make his marauding runs to right back to retrieve the ball knowing that, when he gets there, he will have a target to aim a delicious long ball at. Heskey scares defenders, and it is not due to any great ability on his part is purely the fact that they don’t know how to contain him. Pundits cite the fact that Heskey is not a proven goal scorer, but does he even need to be? England’s best attacking display in recent years came in Zagreb and Heskey had a hand in all of the goals. His excellent positioning allowed the space for Walcott to penetrate and his ability to keep possession will be crucial in the biggest of big games.

When on the attack he pushes the back line of the opposition closer to goal, allowing England’s midfield added time on the ball, giving them the chance to create a goal-scoring opportunity. The triumvirate of Rooney, Gerrard and Lennon/Cole at this summer’s World Cup will be aided by the presence of Heskey when heading towards the opposition’s goal.

Defensively, Heskey is also of great benefit. Not only does Heskey’s positioning allow Rooney to go on those mad runs into defence, but his overall fitness and mobility allows England to press the ball at a greater velocity than if the languid Crouch or the uninterested Defoe leading the line. Retrieving the ball can be the key to a World Cup match and, well, if pressing works for Barcelona surely it will do for England. As Chelsea fans will bear testament, having a powerful striker can also be an advantage when defending set pieces. I’m sure Georgio Chiellini and Per Mertersacker would rather be marked by Jermaine Defoe than Emile Heskey when attempting to score from a corner.

The debate goes on and the man whose opinion really matters happens to look like the depiction of Mel B off Bo Selecta. Oh well Fabio, you can’t have it all.p.s Come on Twitterland: NotBadOnPaper