Nicknamed 'Phantom' by the Nuremberg fans for his ability to steal into goalscoring positions undetected, Marek Mintal has become a firm favourite during his six seasons at the German club.
Having started out with hometown club MSK Zilina, the Slovakian midfielder moved to Nuremberg in 2003, when the club was still in the German second division. Success immediately followed. The club earned promotion to the Bundesliga, Mintal claiming top scorer honours with 18 goals in 31 appearances. The 'Phantom' then underlined his credentials in the top flight with an impressive 24 goals in 34 matches, yet again topping the scoring charts.
Despite lucrative offers from elsewhere, and Nuremberg’s unwanted return to the second division, Mintal has remained loyal to the Bavarian outfit. Twice named his country’s Player of the Year, in 2004 and 2005, his twin goals for the coming months are promotion at club level, and qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with his country, who have never before appeared on football's greatest stage.
FIFA.com: Marek, let’s start by talking about your club. Are Nuremberg good enough to win promotion back to the Bundesliga?
Marek Mintal: We had a few problems at the start of the season. A lot of players came and went, so we had a number of new faces to bed into the team. It always takes time, it’s the same at every club, and that’s what happened in Nuremberg. But since the winter break, we’ve settled into our new system, we’ve been much more consistent, and we know how we want to play. Can we go up? I’ve said it so often already, but anything’s possible in football. We’re taking each game as it comes. Our goal is to collect as many points as possible. Obviously, we’d like to end up back in the Bundesliga.
You were Bundesliga top scorer in 2005 and a German cup winner in 2007 and have had any number of offers from other clubs. Why have you stayed loyal to Nuremberg and do you regret not moving on?
I’ve been here since 2003. I’ve always felt good about the club and the environment here, and that continues to be the case today. My greatest successes in the game have come as a Nuremberg player. I was top scorer in the Bundesliga, we won the cup, and we played in the UEFA Cup. Those are precious memories, and I associate them with Nuremberg. This will always be a very special place for me.
Can you see yourself ending your career in Germany with Nuremberg?
If that is a possibility, why not?
We've often simply proved unable to beat the really good teams. We
don't win the 'six-pointers', and that's the fundamental problem.
Turning to the national team, Slovakia are top of their group with three wins from four matches. How would you assess your chances of securing a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa?
Every time we set out on qualifying, we hope we’ll end up at the World Cup or the European championship finals. Obviously we’re in a great position at the present time, but we have a number of really tough games ahead of us.
How strong is the group, which also includes neighbours Poland and Czech Republic?
Every group is a challenge for us. We only ever have tough opponents. We still face testing trips to Poland and Czech Republic. All we can do is take as many points as humanly possible.
Why have Slovakia never qualified for a major tournament?
We have some very good players. The Slovakian national team has plenty of individual class, but we've often simply proved unable to beat the really good teams. We don't win the 'six-pointers', and that's the fundamental problem.
How important is it to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup or UEFA EURO 2012?
As any player will tell you, appearing at one of these events is the biggest professional challenge of them all. The dream of representing your country at one of the biggest tournaments is the same for everyone. For the people of Slovakia, qualification would be like Christmas come early. Everyone’s yearning for a triumph of this order. I really, really hope we finally make it.
Are Slovakia really good enough?
I always think positive, which means I always believe in our ability to hit our targets. We have some young, talented players, and we’re all up for it.
How would you describe the status of the game in Slovakia?
No sport is more popular. Football is far and away the number one in my home country.
Your national team-mates are spread out around Europe, in Turkey, England, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. Is that a good or a bad thing?
It can only be a good thing. Our players can only benefit from playing in Europe’s strongest leagues.
Who is your favourite club, in Germany and beyond?
My favourite club in Germany is my current one, FC Nuremberg. Looking at the rest of the world, I like Manchester United the best.
Do you have a role model or favourite player?
My favourite players are Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard.
What are your immediate targets with Nuremberg and with Slovakia?
My personal priority is to stay fit and healthy. With Nuremberg, the target is obviously a return to the top flight. With the national team, I finally want us to qualify for the World Cup and go to South Africa.