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.”