“This is one of the greatest days of my life,” an overjoyed Vladimir Weiss told FIFA, fresh from his Slovakia team’s historic victory over Italy. “I’m very proud of what my players have done. They played a fantastic match.”
Even after the initial euphoria had died down, it remained tough to overstate his charges' achievement. Appearing at a FIFA World Cup™ for the very first time, the Repre had not simply sealed their passage to the Round of 16 by downing the Squadra Azzurra 3-2 – they had dumped the reigning champions out of the competition.
“It’s fantastic and we’re having trouble believing it,” Erik Jendrisek said to FIFA.com. “I imagine that only tomorrow will we truly realise that we’re in the last 16 of the World Cup.”
No matter how difficult their feat may be to grasp, Slovakia’s runners-up spot in Group F owed nothing to chance and everything to an ability to outdo themselves in order to continue their FIFA World Cup adventure. Forward Robert Vittek did much of the damage with a double, after being positioned in left midfield against Paraguay, and his vital haul also took him level with Szilard Nemeth as his country’s highest-ever scorer on 22 goals.
“This is a huge win,” said Vittek, the Budweiser Man of the Match. “We’ve pushed back the boundaries of Slovakian football. We never would have dared dream of this. I’m overjoyed. We proved that we’re capable of great things. My individual performance doesn’t matter; only the performance of the team counts. But, of course, to be chosen as Man of the Match means a lot to me. I’d just like to be able to break up this trophy and give a little piece to every one of my team-mates.”
Vittek was right to praise his colleagues for their sterling efforts and Slovakia were particularly eye-catching in midfield. Enjoying his first start at South Africa 2010, Miroslav Stoch never stopped testing and harrying Italy’s defence, and after first asking them questions from the left he switched to the right with similar effect. Likewise, Jendrisek and Marek Hamsik capped stylish displays by setting up Vittek for his goals, while holding duo Jurak Kucka, who was making his first start, and Zdenko Strba stifled Azzurri trio Riccardo Montolivo, Simone Pepe and Daniele De Rossi.
Sealing victory required a solid defence as well and for 80 minutes Slovakia held firm, with the in-form Jan Mucha making a string of saves and Martin Skrtel pulling off a remarkable goal-line clearance from Fabio Quagliarella’s 67th-minute close-range attempt. They began to crack in the final ten minutes, but in contrast to their opener against New Zealand, this time they held on for the win.
“We showed today that we also know how to play attacking football,” added Jendrisek. “Italy were undoubtedly surprised by how we performed and what we were able to do. The difference between this match and our last two games was that as well as trying to play football, this time we did it with heart.”