Athletic, tough-tackling and imposing in the air, Martin Skrtel is a key figure at the back for both Slovakia and club side Liverpool, who he joined from Zenit St. Petersburg in January 2008. A Repre regular since breaking into the senior side in 2004, an ankle injury has threatened the centre-back’s involvement in their Group F opener against New Zealand on 15 June: the country’s first ever match at a FIFA World Cup™ finals.

As he battles to regain full fitness ahead of Tuesday’s game in Rustenburg, the rugged defender took the time to speak exclusively to FIFA.

FIFA: Slovakia are on the verge of playing their first ever match at a FIFA World Cup finals. What does that mean to you?
Martin Skrtel: Obviously it means a great deal, not just for me but for my team-mates and of course for every Slovakian. As you said, it’s our first World Cup and we’re all keen to get started in this competition. We really can’t wait.

Given your experience and status within the game, do you have a greater burden of responsibility on your shoulders?
It’s true that I’ve been in the national team for over five years now, so you’re right that I’m one of the most experienced members of the team. I’ve been involved in two qualifying campaigns, but this was the first time that we’d managed to achieve the goal that we’d set for ourselves and that makes me really happy.

Why do you think Slovakia have been able to produce such a good crop of players?
Perhaps because of lot of young players went abroad at an early age. Vlado (Vladimir) Weiss, Mino (Miroslav) Stoch and Marek Hamsik, for example, left Slovakia at the age of 15 or 16 and I’m convinced that helped them a lot. They may only have ended up playing in the reserves at the big clubs they joined, but they still picked up a work ethic. Moreover, they are now genuine stars at their respective teams and we (Slovakia) are currently reaping the benefits.

The first match against New Zealand will be a serious indicator.

Martin Skrtel, Liverpool defender

Do you think Slovakia can be one of the dark horses at South Africa 2010?
We proved our worth during our qualifying matches, when we showed that we can beat any team on our day. Our first match against New Zealand will be a serious indicator, everything will follow on from that match. If we win we’ll build up the confidence we need for our next matches and it’ll help our performance.

What’s the mood in the camp like ahead of that opening encounter?
There’s a good atmosphere in the squad. More than anything we’re really keen to get stuck in.

On a personal note, are you fully recovered from the ankle injury picked up in the 3-0 friendly win over Costa Rica?
I think that I will be! It’s true that I’ve had a few niggles recently, but I’ll train with the rest of the squad on Sunday (13 June) and I’m convinced I’ll be fine for Tuesday’s game with New Zealand.

What’s your verdict on the Kiwis?
We saw them play first-hand in a warm-up game against Serbia, and our coaching staff followed their match against Slovenia so we know them well! I’m absolutely convinced that our coaches will find the best way to stop them playing. All we have to do is follow their instructions and win the game.

Could this match prove decisive in terms of securing a knockout berth?
New Zealand are rated the weakest team in our group. They’re outsiders, just like us. We’re expecting a tough match against a powerful team, who play a no-nonsense brand of football. That said, I think that we have enough quality to beat them.