Pace is one of Robert Vittek's main attributes. At full speed, the striker frequently leaves the opposition trailing in his wake, a trait he shares with his Slovakian national team-mates, whose record in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has been nothing short of electric.
Slovakia started as underdogs in European Group 3, but the team representing this nation of 5.5 million raced clear of the competition right from the start, and now possess a comfortable five-point cushion over nearest rivals Slovenia and Northern Ireland, with pre-qualifying favourites Czech Republic and Poland nowhere in sight. Vittek and Co take to their home Bratislava turf this Saturday, knowing that a point off the Slovenians would see them safely through to next summer's global showdown.
"The whole of Slovakia would be unbelievably proud if we were to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time. We're all well aware that the game against Slovenia is our big chance," a determined and enthusiastic Vittek exclusively told FIFA.com. "We're confident, and looking forward to playing in front of a full house. On paper, we start as favourites, and I'm absolutely convinced we can take at least a point."
The 27-year-old, who plays his club football in France with Lille, admits that his pulse has been a shade quicker than normal in recent days. Himself a native of Bratislava, Vittek aims to lead from the front as his nation seeks a place at the top table of the world game: "If we qualify for South Africa, my greatest dream would come true. It would be the absolute highlight of my career."
Few would argue with the definition of the Slovaks as the surprise package in European qualifying. In their eight games to date, they have dropped points only twice, in a 2-2 home draw with the Czechs, and a 2-1 defeat in Slovenia. However, coach Vladimir Weiss and his current generation of stars have been working long and hard towards the glittering prize which now lies within reach. Already, in qualifying for the 2006 finals in Germany, they made it as far as the play-offs before eventually coming off second best to Spain.
Vittek admits he is as surprised as the next man to find his team in such a promising position ahead of Saturday's match. "No-one expected this from us, as we were drawn in what looked like one of the toughest groups. But we were all hungry, and in any case, you always need a bit of luck," said the man who spent five seasons knocking in the goals for Nuremberg before his switch to Lille in summer 2008.
Slovakia's patent recipe
One of the Slovaks' outstanding players so far has been Stanislav Sestak from Bundesliga outfit Bochum. The striker has fired six goals in five qualifying appearances, but for all the team's technical ability and cast-iron determination, Vittek believes the real secret of their success lies elsewhere: "Our greatest strength is our collective approach. We've shown it in every qualifier so far. Obviously, we have a number of skilled young individuals too," said the man who frequently wears the captain's armband.
The 2006 Slovakia Player of the Year is all too well aware that teams riding a wave of euphoria can rapidly tumble to earth with a painful thud. However, Vittek sees no reason to be cynical or pessimistic, as he is convinced there will be no slip-ups with the finishing line in sight: "When we face Slovenia, I hope we play with all the quality we've shown throughout qualifying, and bring the job to a successful conclusion."
Vittek is one of the senior pros with the responsibility of keeping the younger players' feet firmly on the ground, ensuring they continue to give their all when they pull on the national shirt. "The lads need to be surrounded by experienced players. I've been part of the set-up for nearly a decade, and I'm happy to lend a hand when it's needed. The other senior players do the same thing, and we're good at coping with pressure," Vittek revealed. The nation currently lying 45th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking have clearly found an ideal blend of youth and experience.
So just how good are the Slovaks compared to the cream of the world game? "I don't think we can pass a verdict just yet. Let's make the comparison once we've qualified for the World Cup," said Vittek, playing FIFA.com's rather cheeky question with a straight bat and a grin. Although, after a brief pause for thought, he did have one thing to add: "Maybe we'll play to our full potential once we get to the finals. It does feel as though we're starting to play like one of the big nations!"