Marek Hamsik is in the form of his life, an undisputed first choice in the light blue of Napoli and an equally certain starter in the dark blue of Slovakia. The 22-year old attacking midfielder is also his country’s captain and the man coach Vladimir Weiss will be looking to when the eastern Europeans line up at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

Despite his young age, Hamsik can already be considered a veteran of Italian football. He was only 17 when he joined Serie B outfit Brescia from Slovan Bratislava, the club where he nurtured his skills. After learning the ropes, the teenager forced his way into the Biancoazzurro starting XI and enjoyed an exceptional 2006/07 season, scoring ten goals in 40 games and exerting an increasing influence in the side.

Rhythm and blues
Keeping close tabs on his development were Napoli, who lured him to the Stadio San Paolo, where he struck up an immediate rapport with the southerners’ demanding but devoted fans. Appreciative of his commitment to the cause, the Napoli faithful are prepared to go to unusual lengths to show how much they care about the man they call Marieko. Proof of that came when the Slovakian had an expensive watch stolen in December 2008, with indignant fans conducting an investigation that led to the precious timepiece being returned to its owner.

Hamsik has repaid such devotion out on the pitch. Equally skilled with either foot, the No17 is revelling in a link-up role that sees him share unglamorous defensive duties with the job of bringing his team-mates into play. Add to that his ability to get into dangerous positions, his shooting power and his cool finishing, and it is easy to see why the fan’s favourite quickly became a fixture in the Slovakia set-up.

Handed his first cap by the then national coach Jan Kocian in a 2-2 friendly draw with Poland in February 2007, Hamsik scored the first of his eight international goals against San Marino that October, hitting a brace against Liechtenstein a year later. His first taste of the captaincy came in the crucial 1-0 qualifying win away to the Poles last October, a result that clinched Slovakia’s place in the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time.

One man who sees him holding on to the armband for a long time to come is Weiss, who succeeded Kocian as national coach. “It’s true that there are older and more experienced players in the team, but Marek is incredibly gifted, a world-class player and worth his weight in gold,” says the 45-year-old boss.

“He’s always produced big performances for us and in every position I’ve used him in. Those are the reasons why I decided to make him captain.”

The jewel in the crown
With 29 internationals already to his name, Hamsik is acquiring plenty of experience of his own. “Marek is very mature for his age,” continues Weiss.

“He is without doubt one of my most versatile players and he’s just as effective an attacking midfielder as he is a support striker. Ever since he went to Napoli he’s approached every game as if it were a battle. With Marek, the players’ heads don’t go down and we’ve turned a few games around because of that.”

The Slovakian’s increasingly impressive CV and Napoli’s recent prominence in Serie A have naturally attracted the attentions of Europe’s finest. “I tried to sign Hamsik when I was at Inter,” commented one of his admirers, Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini, in the Italian press recently.

“I really wanted him to join us but Napoli got in there first. I’m not at all surprised that Europe’s biggest clubs are interested in him. He is exceptionally talented.”

“I get the feeling I’m going to have a great year,” says the man himself. “It’s started really well. My partner gave birth to our first child Christian on 15 January. And then, of course, Slovakia will be going to the World Cup for the first time. I hope we have it in us to go through with Italy, although New Zealand are an unknown quantity who could spring a surprise, and Paraguay had a great qualification campaign,” he adds in reference to his side’s Group E rivals.

Blue has been lucky colour for Hamsik so far in his career. The Slovakian sensation will be hoping it remains that way in South Africa this June, especially when he and his compatriots take on I Azzurri in a potentially decisive final group game.