Slovakia's Robert Vittek had the greatest day of his footballing career at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium on 24 June. Scorer of two goals against world champions Italy, his contribution also brought about the biggest upset at South Africa 2010 so far.
The Group F showdown between unfancied tournament newcomers Slovakia and the holders will go down in FIFA World Cup™ history, ending as it did with Vladimir Weiss’s men handing their illustrious opponents a 3-2 reverse and a premature exit from the competition. It also booked the debutants an unlikely ticket to the last 16, and it was Vittek’s double that did much of the damage, while also making him Slovakia’s joint-leading scorer of all time on 22 strikes.
“It’s fantastic,” he told FIFA after the game. “We’ve pushed the boundaries of Slovakian football once again. We’re on a high because we’ve proved to everyone that we could do better than in our previous games, although I assure you that we gave everything in those matches as well.”
These must indeed be thrilling times for Weiss’s squad, but surely no player will be feeling the joy more than Robo himself, the striker having been approached by Real Madrid at the age of 17 only for the deal to fall through due to a knee ligament injury.
In addition to his talents in front of goal, the marksman possesses deep reserves of character and he recovered from that blow by forging a career at hometown club Slovan Bratislava. Goals flowed freely during his spell from 1999 to 2003, Vittek plundering 47 in 101 appearances, and that haul earned him a move to German outfit Nuremberg, where he continued to impress. The 28-year-old was particularly prolific during the spring of 2006, when he became the first player to hit 16 goals in 17 Bundesliga outings. It was no surprise then, when he was elected Slovakian Player of the Year for 2006.
A year later, and with a 2007 German Cup-winners medal to his name, Vittek sought out fresh adventure. French club Lille were his destination, and his power, aerial ability and calmness in front of goal brought him plenty of plaudits, while helping the northern side flourish. He was then on the move again in January 2010, and this time it was Turkish team Ankaragucu who secured his signature.
We came here as outsiders and, as newcomers, we dreamed of causing a surprise. We’ve already managed that.
Vittek’s greatest days have nonetheless come on the international stage, and since making his debut in 2001 he has been a key figure at the heart of the side. Ahead of Monday's meeting with the Netherlands, he boasts a total of 73 caps, leaving him second on Slovakia’s all-time list behind Miroslav Karhan, while just one more goal will send him out in the clear ahead of Szilard Nemeth.
Having found the net against New Zealand, he also finds himself joint-top of the 2010 FIFA World Cup scoring charts on three goals, along with Gonzalo Higuain, David Villa and Luis Suarez. “I’m only just realising that I’m the top scorer in Slovakian history, but to be honest it doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’s important to me is the team and how we’ve been able to pick ourselves up together after some difficult days.”
As Vittek suggests, it is easy to forget how Slovakia have pulled themselves back from the brink. The team’s maiden qualification for the global showcase was greeted with an outpouring of emotion back home, but the Repre faltered in their first two games and had to summon previously unseen attacking imagination to down Italy. “We were unlucky in our first match and our opponents were better in the second, but on Thursday I thought the best team won,” explained Vittek. “We fought body and soul and I think that’s what made the difference.
“We came here as outsiders and, as newcomers, we dreamed of causing a surprise,” added the striker. “We’ve already managed that. Against the Netherlands, we’ll do everything within our power to repeat the kind of performance we put in against Italy.” What started out as a new page in Slovakian football could yet end up resembling an encyclopaedia.