New Zealand and Slovakia have long coveted places at the FIFA World Cup™. The Kiwis last appeared on its prestigious stage in 1982, and were the underdogs going into their play-off with Bahrain in late 2009. The Slovaks were outsiders in a qualifying group also comprising the likes of Slovenia, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Poland.
But by reaching South Africa 2010, the pair created expectation. And while, given that defending world champions Italy and a capable Paraguay side are also in Group F, a majority view this match as a battle to avoid finishing bottom of the pool, New Zealand and Slovakia consider it an opportunity to put one foot in the knockout phase.
This is certainly a match of mystery. Slovakia have yet to receive the exposure of playing at a major international tournament, while Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel is their only household name. The All Whites remain an unknown quantity to the masses, with Blackburn Rovers centre-back Ryan Nelsen their only player to whom the masses can familiarise. Moreover, the two teams have never met in a senior international. Slovakia are 34th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, with New Zealand in 78th. With Italy and Paraguay in wait, only one result will satisfy both sides as they look to: victory.
Both are among the finest players their country has unearthed in recent decades. Hamsik is an attacking midfielder who creates and scores goals in equal measure, and he was on target 12 times in 37 matches to help Napoli to an unexpected sixth-placed finish in Serie A last season. Having yet to showcase his genius in the UEFA Champions League, the 22-year-old Slovak player of the year could prove an examining puzzle for opponents. Smeltz, for his part, is an attacker who utilises strength, aerial ability and accurate finishing to punish adversaries. A two-time Oceania Player of the Year, the 28-year-old is fresh from scoring a record 19 goals in an Australian A-League campaign.
12 – The number of goals New Zealand conceded in their previous three FIFA World Cup matches; all defeats at Spain 1982.
What they say
“It's got to be one of the biggest games in the history of New Zealand football. The first game in any tournament is always hugely important and that's particularly true here. We know Slovakia are a good side, but we need to get something out of this and we want to get through the group,” Chris Killen, New Zealand forward.
“We will try to win playing attacking football, but I also expect the same (approach) from our opponents. Although it will be tough match, I think we have a better team. Any failure by us will complicate the situation and would mean we would have to try something different in our other two games,” Wladimir Weiss, Slovakia coach.
Voice of the fans
“Picking 2-1 to NZ. Smeltz will pull of an amazing shot for the first goal. Slovakia will equalize not long after. Then in the dying minutes, Fallon will get a fluke header into the net. Wont be pretty, but it'll do the job. Good luck guys,” FIFA.com user Sibby2010.
Do you think either of these teams can reach the Round of 16?