Slovaks top Czechs for first time

For the first time since Czechoslovakia split into two countries in 1993, Slovak football has clearly gained the upper hand over its former Czech twin at both international and club levels.

"We were long in the Czech Republic's shadow, and we have been waiting for this moment since our national team was born," said Stanislav Griga, who coaches Slovakian club FK Senica.

Slovakia made it to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where they stunned Italy with a 3-2 win that sent the defending champions packing after the group stage. And the team led by coach Vladimir Weiss - who like Griga played for Czechoslovakia at the 1990 FIFA World Cup - have also made a promising start to their UEFA EURO 2012 qualification, winning 1-0 in Russia.

"The national team benefits from healthy self-confidence. But neither the players nor coach Vladimir Weiss have their noses in the air," said Griga. "They are perfectly aware of how hard it is to maintain this level," he added.

On the club front, Slovak champions MSK Zilina are bracing to face Chelsea, Olympique Marseille and Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Champions League group stage. In the last qualifying round, Zilina eliminated Czech champions Sparta Prague.

The euphoria among fans in Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million, is as palpable as the sense of disappointment on the western side of the Morava river which separates the two countries. The Czech Republic national team has been in a deep crisis since the outstanding generation of 2003 European Footballer of the year Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer and Jan Koller retired.

The Czechs were runners-up at Euro 1996 and third at Euro 2004, where the Nedved-led team was praised for its impressive, attacking style. Six years later, however, the Czechs failed to make it to South Africa - after being beaten in their qualifying group by Slovakia.

Czech optimism
The Czechs, who have had four coaches since Euro 2008, have recently been offering fans lacklustre performances, crowned by a humiliating 0-1 home loss to Lithuania in their opening Euro 2012 qualifier. Ivan Hasek, head of the Czech Football Association and a member also of the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals team, sounds self-assured: "The Slovaks have definitely been successful lately and it seems they are now stronger than us. But that may change fast."

Czechs and Slovaks typically took turns in representing a majority on the Czechoslovak national team. Only three Slovaks - Jan Popluhar, Andrej Kvasnak and Adolf Scherer - were in the starting line-up for the 1962 FIFA World Cup finals, while the backbone of the team was formed by Dukla Prague players including European Footballer of the year Josef Masopust.

But the situation changed after the glamorous rise of two Slovak football prides: Spartak Trnava, a European Cup semi-finalist in 1969, and Slovan Bratislava, the winner of the now defunct Cup Winners' Cup the same year. Slovan Bratislava stars including captain Anton Ondrus naturally prevailed in the Czechoslovak team that won Euro 1976.

The Slovaks were supplemented by only three Czechs - keeper Ivo Viktor, striker Zdenek Nehoda, and midfielder Antonin Panenka, whose name has become a technical term in football due to a spectacular penalty in the final shoot-out against Germany. The Czechoslovak football league split half a year after the united country itself divorced amicably.

The Czechs kept 16 teams in the top flight with second-league additions, while Slovakia reduced its league to 12 sides. "The Slovak league is now more attractive for fans. The local teams play in a more modern way," said Zilina's Czech midfielder Emil Rilke.