An imposing figure at the heart of Slovakia’s defence, and an extremely tricky obstacle for opposing forwards to manoeuvre around, Martin Skrtel is an athletic, tough-tackling centre-back, as rigorous in his marking as he is convincing in his headed clearances. Still relatively young at 25, he is one of the more experienced players in Vladimir Weiss’ 23-man squad for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, due to a career path that has never veered too far from the highest levels of the game.
A highly skilled ice hockey player in his youth, things might have turned out very differently for Skrtel had he not quickly begun to excel within FK Prievidza’s youth academy, and then later at Trencin, upon turning professional. It was at these modest clubs that he honed the skills that are today so invaluable to Liverpool and Slovakia.
At Trencin, Skrtel’s progress was remarkable, his defensive solidity and ability to contribute useful goals impressing fans and scouts alike. In 2004, he considered himself sufficiently mature to test his skills in a more challenging environment, moving to the Russian Premier League to join Zenit St. Petersburg. The doors to the Slovak national team were promptly opened to him at this point - a further sign of a career on the rise.
In Russia it did not take long for Skrtel to establish himself in the starting XI, but silverware and awards were not as quick to follow. He would need to wait until his final season at the Petrovsky Stadium to enjoy tangible success as Zenit won the Russian Championship, and Skrtel picked up the title of Slovak Player of the Year for 2007. Numerous big-name European clubs were rumoured to be interested in coaxing him away from St. Petersburg, but it was Liverpool who ultimately won the race, securing the Slovak’s signature in the 2008 January transfer window. Recruited to shore up an oft-erratic back line, Skrtel became The Reds’ most expensive defensive purchase. With the benefit of hindsight, many Liverpool fans would now argue that it was a price worth paying.
When Skrtel first arrived on Merseyside, however, competition for places at the back was tough, in the form of internationals such as Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher. The rugged Slovak defender approached the challenge head-on, breaking into the first team and staying there, convincing Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez with his aggression, speed, heading ability and mental strength. The only fly in the ointment for Skrtel has been injuries, be it the knee problem that sidelined him for three months during the 2008/09 season, or the broken bone in his right foot suffered in February of this year that put him out of action for several weeks. The prospect of losing such a key player with the FIFA World Cup kick-off fast approaching had Slovakia supporters furrowing their brows, but with Skrtel’s injury troubles apparently behind him, it is now the turn of his future opponents on the pitches of South Africa to worry.