International

Unknown Slovakia set for first Euro's

2015-12-11 19:30
Martin Skrtel (AFP)

Cape Town - Slovakia is among five newcomers for next year's European Championship in France. The team will play in the tournament for the first time as an independent nation since splitting with Czechoslovakia in 1993.

But that doesn't mean the Slovaks have no experience with major tournaments.

At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they pulled off a major upset by knocking out defending champion Italy. And as part of Czechoslovakia, the Slovaks played a vital role on a team that won the European Championship in 1976.

Slovakia coach Jan Kozak can be hardly called a newcomer either. As a creative midfielder, he was on the Czechoslovakia team that won the third-place playoff at the 1980 Euros.

With Kozak in charge, the team did what it failed to do in its previous five Euro qualifying campaigns. Slovakia opened with six straight wins, which included ending defending champion Spain's eight-year unbeaten run in qualifying matches in a stunning 2-1 victory, to finish second in its group.

With solid defense cemented by Liverpool central defender Martin Skrtel, the team relies on the playmaking qualities of Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik.

After qualifying, Kozak called 2015 a "decent year" and sent a message to future opponents.

"It is important that the team has not reached its best," Kozak said. "There's still room for improvement."

Here is a look at Slovakia's key players and its coach:

MAREK HAMSIK

If there's an international star on the Slovak team, it's Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik who dictates his team's pace and has scored 17 goals in more than 80 internationals. In Euro 2016 qualifying, he got a new role up front, becoming the team's best scorer with five goals in the 10 matches in the campaign. The most important two came in the final qualifier against Luxembourg in a 4-2 victory that sent his country to France.

MARTIN SKRTEL

He may have scored seven own goals in the Premier League but Martin Skrtel remains for Liverpool and his country a defensive cornerstone who never gives up an inch of the field. The 30-year-old central back proved his leadership in his 77 international games and was irreplaceable in his nine qualifiers for the Euro 2016 finals when he captained the Slovaks. With Skrtel on the field, Slovakia lost just one game, 1-0 to Belarus. Ahead of the season, he was given a three-year contract extension by Liverpool, which he joined in 2008.

VLADIMIR WEISS

With Marek Hamsik busy getting the goals in the Euro 2016 qualifying matches, it was Vladimir Weiss who took the role of setting up the scorers. He did it six times, something that only Arkadiusz Milik of Poland and Senad Lulic of Bosnia could match. The 26-year-old has a good tutor at home. His father of the same name coached his country to the first major tournament, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and before that made it to the 1990 World Cup during his playing days with the former Czechoslovakia as a creative midfielder. Despite his age, the younger Weiss has decent experience from Manchester City, Bolton, Olympiakos, Pescara, Rangers and Espanyol. He currently plays for Lekhwiya in Qatar.

COACH: JAN KOZAK

When Jan Kozak took over as coach in 2013, Slovak hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were in ruins, and so was the team. Kozak had no experience with foreign clubs, but knew something about international football. He played 55 times for Czechoslovakia, scoring nine goals, and later led Kosice to the Champions League group stage in the 1997-98 season as the first Slovak club in the top European competition. The 61-year-old Kozak is a master of tactics, surprising many by using his key playmaker Marek Hamsik as a forward. Under Kozak, Slovakia has become an organized side with a decent defense and formidable counterattacking force. After successfully coaching his team to France, Kozak wants more: "We've been fighting for something and succeeded. Now we need to do the same at the championship."

Read more on:    slovakia  |  euro 2016  |  martin skrtel  |  soccer
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