SWC formative: Slovakia
Paris - Slovakia’s players will look forward to broadening their horizons at the World Cup after qualifying from a group that featured three of their nearest neighbours.
Vladimir Weiss’s side saw off challenges from Poland and the Czech Republic, with both of whom they share a border, and fellow eastern Europeans Slovenia en route to topping Group 3 in the European zone.
Their pool at the World Cup has a much more exotic flavour, with Paraguay, New Zealand and defending champions Italy barring their way to the last 16 from Group F.
Slovakia’s appearance in South Africa represents the first time they have qualified for a major tournament since the country was granted independence following the collapse of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
"Our country is very proud. Qualifying for the World Cup is important for the identity of our young nation, but we know it's going to be very hard work to perform well at the finals," said veteran midfielder Miroslav Karhan of German side Mainz.
Slovakia secured their place in South Africa with a 1-0 victory over Poland on a snowbound pitch in Chorzow last October, clinging on for victory after Seweryn Gancarczyk’s own goal had given them the lead in the third minute.
Defensive discipline was not a key feature of their qualifying campaign, though, and the 10 goals they conceded were more than any of the other teams that qualified automatically in Europe.
It is going forward that Slovakia show their best side and much of their attacking play revolves around the gifts of 22-year-old midfielder Marek Hamsik.
The Napoli man with the spiky hair and fierce competitive edge has enjoyed his most prolific season to date in Serie A and his importance is demonstrated by the fact Weiss had no qualms about handing him the captain’s armband despite his tender years.
"He is without doubt one of my most versatile players and he’s just as effective an attacking midfielder as he is a support striker," says Weiss.
"Ever since he went to Napoli he’s approached every game as if it were a battle. With Marek, the players’ heads don’t go down and we’ve turned a few games around because of that."
Hamsik is likely to be joined in Slovakia’s attack by Chelsea winger Miroslav Stoch, who recently capped a fine season on loan at FC Twente with a goal in the Dutch side’s title-clinching win over NAC Breda.
Weiss’s son, also called Vladimir, is on Manchester City’s books and has turned in some eye-catching performances during a loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, while Bochum forward Stanislas Sestak notched six goals in six qualifying matches.
"I’m really excited to be going to South Africa," says Sestak. "It’s supposed to be a fantastic country and I’m really looking forward to forming my own impressions. And it’s always been my dream to play at a World Cup. I’m about to live the dream."
Slovakia received a significant pre-tournament boost when it was revealed that key central defender Martin Skrtel of Liverpool could return in time for the tournament after three months out with a broken metatarsal.