Putting established international sides like Poland and Czech Republic to the sword in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying might go to some teams' heads, but that has certainly not been the case with Slovakia, who beat both nations to an automatic place at South Africa 2010 in European Zone qualifying Group 3. Indeed, the nation of around 5.5 million inhabitants is remaining decidedly modest ahead of football's showpiece event in just a few months' time.
"Of course the World Cup is going to be the highlight of my career," admitted Slovakia's record caps holder Miroslav Karhan in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, although the Mainz stalwart maintained an air of caution about his side's chances in South Africa. "There are a lot of people back home who are really enthusiastic about seeing us take on the best in the world, but there are also a lot of people who are very sceptical about our chances."
Inspired by scepticism
Karhan oozes calmness on the pitch as a defensive midfielder, so it comes as no surprise the 33-year-old refuses to get carried away with all the hype surrounding this summer's soccer spectacle. "Our country is very proud. Qualifying for the World Cup is important for the identity of our young nation, but we know it's going to be very hard work to perform well at the finals."
The Slovakians are well aware of the increased expectation levels among fans as a result of their table-topping qualification campaign. "We've been drawn in a very tough group with world champions Italy, New Zealand and Paraguay. In fairness, it could have been worse, but then again, the New Zealanders and Paraguayans are probably quite pleased that they were drawn against us!"
The ideal mix
A mixture of experienced campaigners and talented youngsters is the Slovakian national squad's current recipe for success. The likes of 27-year-old Lille striker Robert Vittek and Karhan ensure stability, while more youthful players such as Liverpool centre-back Martin Skrtel and Napoli star Marek Hamsik bring a hard edge to a team which managed 22 goals in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Only Germany, Spain, England and Bosnia-Herzegovina found the target more times en route to South Africa.
Karhan has no doubts that the happy-go-lucky nature of the current Slovakian generation of stars will serve them well at the finals. "Of course you become wiser and calmer as you get older, but players like Skrtel at Liverpool and Hamsik at Napoli have already gathered plenty of top-class experience. They know what they're doing."
Combine that blend of youth and experience with the goalscoring threat of Bochum striker Stanislav Sestak, who and notched an impressive six goals in qualifying, and the Slovakians could indeed have the critics eating their words in the summer.
Teamwork the key
"Our main strength is the way we work together as a team. We know that we can only succeed if we are all pulling in the same direction," emphasised Karhan. If Slovakia can continue their battling performances at this summer's FIFA World Cup, there is certainly no reason why Vladimir Weiss' charges cannot cause a stir against some of the so-called 'bigger' nations. "I think the second round is a realistic target for us," continued Karhan.
Step by step and plenty of patience is the key to a successful future for Slovakian football in the eyes of 'Mr 100 per cent', as Karhan is known by fans due to his hard work and efficiency on the pitch. The former Wolfsburg midfielder is currently reaping the rewards of a similar philosophy at current club Mainz: "I'm really happy here. The mentality of the club matches my own."
Promoted to the Bundesliga last year, the Nullfunfers have made a serious impact in Germany's top tier and currently sit a healthy eighth in the table. And after a surprise 2-1 victory over Bavarian giants Bayern Munich at the start of the season, could Karhan be part of similar heroics at international level come June?