A fine line separates delight from disappointment, as tournament newcomers Slovakia discovered in their maiden match at FIFA’s premier event. Bojovni Jondovci were a whisker away from taking top marks in their opening test against New Zealand on Thursday 15 June. While Martin Skrtel and Jan Durica had kept the Kiwis at bay at the heart of the defence, up the other end of the pitch target man Robert Vittek had nodded his side in front after 50 minutes. But an injury-time equaliser from All Whites right-back Winston Reid put paid to the Slovaks’ hopes of making a winning start to their campaign.
Prior to that match Slovakia were convinced they had learned from their past mistakes. Stanislav Sestak, one of their shining lights against New Zealand, told FIFA.com before the game that his side had turned a corner on the road to South Africa: "Before we were unlucky and had a habit of losing our matches due to errors," said the 27-year-old Bochum striker. "We managed to stamp them out during the qualifying tournament and pick up the points we needed to get to the World Cup." Now it’s back to the drawing board for the eastern Europeans, who can nevertheless take heart from the standout performances of Sestak, Marek Hamsik and Vladimir Weiss.
Playing the numbers game
Fellow forward Erik Jendrisek couldn’t conceal his frustration at the end of the match: "We’re really annoyed that we conceded that goal in the last minute because we had the game in our grasp," said Schalke’s latest recruit, who offered his own explanation for why the three points ultimately eluded his team. "They kept playing long balls over the top and it finally paid off. We have to take a close look at what went wrong but it’s going to be a complex exercise."
This verdict was echoed by goalscorer Vittek: "We’ve got no excuses for conceding a goal like that in the 93rd minute of a match as important as a World Cup group match, because things like that can decide our future." For the Slovakian sharpshooter, who made the most of his 1.88 metre frame to head past All Whites’ keeper Mark Paston, the numbers just don’t add up: "We needed the three points, we’ve just got one but it feels like we got none."
Turning performances into points
One player trying hard to look on the bright side was 20-year-old Repre hotshot Vladimir Weiss: "We’re obviously gutted. Winning would have been the perfect start, but conceding a goal in the last minute has changed everything. But these things happen in football". The Slovakians can at least draw encouragement from the match statistics which underline their domination of the game, with 13 shots on goal to New Zealand’s eight and ten corners to the Kiwis’ three.
Even so the final result is what counts and, having been pegged back to 1-1 when victory seemed inevitable, Slovakia will see it as two points dropped. Now they have the chance to make amends against Paraguay on Sunday 20 June and Manchester City winger Weiss is taking the positives into this next challenge: "That was our big debut in the World Cup and we weren’t expecting it to be a walkover. We were leading 1-0 and I think any side would have settled for that result in their debut match. The fact that we came so close to winning is very encouraging."
"At the end of the day we haven’t lost and we’ll do our level best to prevent the same thing from happening again." The upcoming match against Los Guaraníes will show whether the Slovaks have indeed learnt their lesson.