"We came here as outsiders,” striker Robert Vittek told FIFA ahead of Slovakia’s last-16 date with the Netherlands. “As newcomers we dreamed of causing a surprise and we’ve already done that.”
Springing another upset to send the Oranje packing may have ultimately proved beyond them, but the Repre pushed until the final kick of the game to rattle their prestigious opponents, and can depart their first-ever FIFA World Cup™ proud of a successful campaign.
In fact, given their uncertain start, the competition newcomers ought to be even more satisfied with their efforts. Expected to see off New Zealand in their opener, Slovakia could only record a frustrating 1-1 draw after being pegged back in the very last minute.
“The first match affected us mentally,” admitted coach Vladimir Weiss, who went back to the drawing board in search of inspiration. His response was to constantly shuffle his starting line-up and rethink his tactics, all the while ensuring his players kept the heart so vital to their efforts.
Against Paraguay, Weiss opted for a 4-5-1 formation rather than his favoured 4-4-2, shifting central defender Jan Durica out to left-back and fielding centre-forward Vittek as an attacking midfielder. The gamble did not pay off, however, as Slovakia suffered a 2-0 reverse that left them on the brink of elimination heading into their final group outing against heavy favourites Italy, the defending world champions.
Undaunted by the standing of the opposition, Weiss surprised everyone by ringing the changes yet again, this time leaving out regular starters Stanislav Sestak and his own son, Vladimir Weiss, while placing left winger Miroslav Stoch on the right and centre-forward Erik Jendrisek on the left. The new-look side went on to post an heroic 3-2 triumph over an Italy team devoid of ideas, and those three precious points secured Slovakia a last-16 berth against all odds.
“This is a huge win,” explained Vittek after the final whistle, fresh from hitting two goals to become his country’s all-time joint-leading marksman on 22 goals – a title he would claim outright in his next appearance. “We’ve pushed the boundaries of Slovakian football. We never would have dared dream of this. I’m overjoyed. We proved that we’re capable of great things.”
As thoughts turned to the Netherlands, it was clear what he and his team-mates now needed to do: “We have to put in a performance close to the one we managed against Italy,” he added.
Despite the superb display against the Squadra Azzurra, Weiss was not finished tinkering with his line-up, and this time employed Marek Hamsik as a defensive midfielder and reinstated his son as playmaker in a 4-5-1 formation. The Oranje were nonetheless far from flustered by the changes and Weiss reorganised his troops no fewer than three times during the encounter as he sought the upper hand in vain. “The best team won and that was the Netherlands,” he conceded following the 2-1 loss. “But we still leave South Africa with honour.”
They could also return home excited about the future. “The dream may have come to an end, but we had a great World Cup,” added goalkeeper Jan Mucha, speaking to FIFA.com. “We were able to compete with some of the biggest teams in the world. We didn’t lack much today, just an equaliser to make it 1-1, but the future is promising and we have a very young team. Our prospects in the next seven or eight years look excellent.”
Weiss Jr added: "It’s magnificent for a small country like ours to have reached this stage of the competition. We had chances to continue the dream this evening, but we have no reason to be ashamed of our performance tonight or throughout the tournament in general. We have a young side and our goal now is to grow in maturity and come back even stronger four years from now.”
Minnows in South Africa, they may themselves be the target of ambitious underdogs next time around.