The standings after four matches in 2010 FIFA World Cup™ European qualifying Group 3 are worth a second look. Favourites Czech Republic and Poland are conspicuous by their absence from the top of the list, where Slovakia currently occupy pole position. The world’s favourite sport is back in business in this landlocked country of 5.4 million, in no small part due to a man who took over as national team coach last July.
The Slovaks’ recent resurgence is ineluctably linked with Vladimir Weiss. The former Czechoslovakia international, a veteran of many major tournaments including the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy, spent eight seasons earning his coaching spurs with Artmedia Petrzalka in his home country and Russian cracks FK Saturn Ramenskoye, before embarking on a mission to lead Slovakia to the global showdown in South Africa.
Practically everything has gone to plan since then. Weiss’s reign opened with a 2-1 home win over Northern Ireland in Bratislava and a defeat by the same score to Slovenia in Maribor, but a 3-1 success against San Marino in Serravalle lit the blue touch paper for the best result so far, a 2-1 triumph against Poland in Bratislava. The mid-October win rated as a real upset, as the Poles were UEFA EURO 2008 starters just a few months earlier, and also took part at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
The new Slovak generation is spearheaded by Stanislav Sestak. The Bochum hitman, celebrating his 26th birthday next Tuesday, has struck three goals in FIFA World Cup qualifying so far, including the brace on 84 and 86 minutes to turn the match on its head against the stunned Poles.
We have good youth players coming through, and the domestic league is
getting stronger. We also have more players in the big leagues abroad.
"We’re heading in the right direction," Sestak told FIFA.com a few months back. "We have good youth players coming through, and the domestic league is getting stronger. We also have more players in the big leagues abroad. If we can establish ourselves here, the national team will qualify for a major tournament at some point, because we certainly have the potential."
The striker is clearly hungry for success and totally focused on realising a dream: "I’d really like Slovakia to go to the World Cup for the first time in 2010. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll see if we can get to the next tournament. We Slovaks are stubborn folk – we don’t give up until the job’s done."
On the back of this attitude and determination, Slovakia have returned to the top 50 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. After holding 60th spot in the October charts, Weiss’s team made up 15 places in November and now lie 45th in the world. Exactly a year has passed since the Slovaks last made the global top 50. The leap of 106 points to a new tally of 627 naturally owes much to the dramatic victory over the Poles.
Slovakia’s best-ever placing was 17th in May 1997. Emulating that achievement will not be an overnight job, but on current form, Weiss and his troops could have what it takes to rejoin the upper echelons of the world game.