In the 20 years since Slovakia gained independence, the national team have only graced one FIFA World Cup™. It would prove to be an historic appearance, however, as the Repre refused to just make up the numbers at South Africa 2010, instead surprising almost everyone by reaching the knockout stages at the expense of holders Italy.
Unfortunately, Slovakia will have no chance to repeat those heroics at next year’s World Cup in Brazil, having recently bowed out of the race to qualify from UEFA Group G. However their U-17 team, led by star players Lukas Haraslin and Atila Varga, appear to have taken up the mantle. Last June they sealed their place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 after reaching the semi-final of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship 2013.
FIFA.com met with young Slovakian stars on their return from club duty in Italy and asked them about the growing ties between the two countries and the upcoming showdown in UAE.
“I’ve noticed there are more and more Slovakian players plying their trade [in Italy], and that’s great news for Slovakian football,” said team captain Haraslin. “This country is one of the elite nations in the footballing world. Personally, I had the opportunity to sign for Parma and have never regretted that decision,” he added, before going on to cite compatriots Varga and Jakub Hromada – “two excellent Juventus players” – as examples of others who have made the move to Italy.
Of course it is the same path trodden by Marek Hamsik, as much an idol in Slovakia as he is at Napoli. Hamsik serves as a great example to these young players, as Haraslin himself explained: “He’s a world-class player. I’ve never had the chance to meet him, but I’d be very happy if I could in the future.” And the youngster has a few things in common with his older compatriot, from the shirt number they wear to their distinctive hairstyle, not forgetting their considerable talent. “It’s an honour to be compared to him, but I know that I still have to work extremely hard to get to his level,” he added. One person who believes Haraslin has what it takes is team-mate Varga, who said of his colleague: “Lukas is unbelievably talented. He’s great both on and off the pitch.”
Harmony and rivalry
The exchange of compliments embody the team spirit that is one of the key strengths of this young Repre team. It was this same virtue that enabled the senior side to reach the last 16 of the World Cup in 2010 and something Varga feels was instrumental in Slovakia’s qualification for UAE 2013: “We all get along perfectly. And I think you can see that when we play. Our togetherness is our key strength,” a point with which his Parma-based compatriot would agree.
The duo also believe their team can carry an element of surprise into the tournament, much as the seniors did in South Africa. “I’m delighted by our progress. Nobody thought that we could finish first in our group [made up of Austria, Switzerland and Sweden] to reach the knockout stages of the Euros. Our goal was to seal our place at this World Cup, and it’s mission accomplished,” said Haraslin, adding, “We even surprised ourselves. We produced some great performances in the first three matches and it was a shame that we couldn't maintain the same level against Italy.”
It was indeed ironic that the side to halt the Repre’s progress in the European semi-final was that of their adopted homeland: “It’s just a simple coincidence; there isn’t really any competition between the Squadra Azzurra and Slovakia. Italy are ahead in footballing terms. There’s no comparison,” said Varga, before leaving the final words to his captain: “Right now, I really don’t think that there’s a history of rivalry between the two nations. But maybe there will be in the future...”