They say the first time is always special, and in Slovakia the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has a lovable debutant with feet planted firmly on the ground but hopes that spin up in the stratosphere.
A long tradition exists of first-time participants at the FIFA World Cup pulling off stirring results, whether by the force of sheer enthusiasm or ability out on the pitch. Senegal’s Lions of Teranga roared to the quarter-final round in 2002 after a famous opening-day victory over then-holders France. Nigeria’s Super Eagles thundered through USA 1994’s group stages, finishing ahead of Diego Maradona’s Argentina and Hristo Stoichkov’s impressive Bulgaria. The Republic of Ireland’s cheerful trip to the quarter-finals in 1990, and Korea DPR’s rousing upset of giants Italy and subsequent run to the last eight in England in 1966, are other examples of first-timers making a mark on the world stage.
Outsiders and underdogs can be hard to resist, and a new team invariably has the sympathetic support of neutral fans everywhere. The Slovaks – who ousted Czech Republic and Poland to finish first in their qualifying group becoming the only debutants to reach South Africa 2010 – also remind us of a recent finals first-timer, Croatia, who very nearly landed in the final of France 1998 in their FIFA World Cup debut.
Like the Croats, who rode the outstanding play of Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban to the semi-finals in 1998 – just seven years after gaining independence – the Slovakians have a direct connection to a proud past on the world stage, and are also playing under the colours of a new standard. The Croats participated in eight FIFA World Cups as part of Yugoslavia, as did Slovakia as one half of former European powerhouse Czechoslovakia, a team that finished finished runners-up on two occasions: at Italy 1934 and in Chile in 1962. The former nation’s ultimate achievement, before the splitting of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, came in 1976 when they beat FIFA World Cup holders West Germany in a famous penalty shootout to be crowned champions of Europe.
Skrtl and Co
Though debutants on paper, Slovakia arrive in South Africa with a raft of sturdy players, most of whom ply their trade in some of Europe’s biggest leagues. The top-flights of Germany, Italy, England, Turkey and Poland are all represented in the 30-man preliminary squad named by coach Vladimir Weiss; in Liverpool’s Martin Skrtl, the Slovaks have a leader accustomed to life at the top tiers of the game.
"Our ambition in South Africa is to reach the second round," said the ever-cautious coach Weiss in a recent interview with FIFA.com. But spirits in the team’s hopes are started to soar rise above mere second-round ambitions.
“I didn’t fully appreciate so far what it means for fans that Slovakia qualified for the World Cup,” said the near-tearful Poland-based goalkeeper Jan Mucha as tens of thousands of people greeted the FIFA World Cup trophy on a promotional tour in the north-western city of Zilina. “But I understand it now. We can’t fail them in South Africa.”
“I’d think first place is already taken,” said qualifying top-scorer Stanislav Sestak. “I’m pretty certain the world champions [Italy] can cope with this group,” which also includes Paraguay and rank outsiders New Zealand. “But we’re contenders for second place. That would be a huge success for Slovakia.”
"Qualifying for the World Cup is important for the identity of our young nation,” said captain and all-time Slovak caps leader Miroslav Karhan, “but we know it's going to be very hard work to perform well at the finals.” Karhan speaks for his hopeful nation of 5.5 million as they place their hopes and dreams firmly behind their beloved first-timers: “Our country is very proud.”