Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo all made their debuts on the international stage aged just 18. Lothar Matthaus was a year older, while Pele was only 17 when he first donned the Brazil shirt. The list of world-class players to have earned maiden caps for their countries as teenagers is endless, and the trend is clear: international football tends to come around early in player’s career.

However, there are of course exceptions to the rule. Marek Bakos is a case in point, having taken his international bow with Slovakia last year at the age of 28. “It’s unbelievable the way it worked out with me,” the striker said of his “late arrival” in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.

Ten years ago, few could have predicted that Bakos would have to wait almost another decade for his maiden senior-team call-up. In 2003, he made his inaugural appearance on the international stage at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

“It was very interesting. We played really well and only got knocked out by the eventual champions Brazil, (a 2-1 defeat in the Round of 16 after extra time),” he said. “Even though I didn’t play in that match, I felt the excitement as much as if I’d been on the pitch. We held our own for a long time and were leading 1-0 until the 80th minute. I can still remember it clearly.”

Change of scene
Yet Bakos subsequently failed to break into the senior side and was overlooked by those in charge of the national team. His club career struggled to take off too. After spells at FC Nitra, Matador Puchov, Schinnik Jaroslavl and MFK Ruzomberok, Bakos joined Czech side Viktoria Pilsen in 2009, where he quickly made up for lost time.

He soon became a pivotal member of the Pilsen team and enjoyed his most successful year as a professional in 2011. Bakos scored nine goals to help the club to an inaugural Czech league title, before hitting the net six times in five 2011/12 UEFA Champions League qualifying games to fire Pilsen into the group stage of the tournament for the first time in their history.

I still believe we can reach Brazil. Our team has enough quality to get the necessary points, even against our direct rivals.

Slovakia's Marek Bakos

Bakos also netted Pilsen’s first goal in the Champions League proper in a 1-1 draw against Belarusian champions BATE Borissov on 13 September 2011. In the return fixture, the striker - who names Marco van Basten and former Brazilian star Ronaldo as his role models - was on target in the 1-0 win that ensured Pilsen third place in the group and qualification for the UEFA Europa League.

“It makes me very happy that I’ve been part of the good results this club has had in the last three years,” he told FIFA.com. So appreciative is Bakos, who turns 30 today, of his recent transformation that he says a move away from Pilsen is unthinkable at present.

From fan to player
Bakos’ performances with his club did not go unnoticed by the national team, and the long-lost son was soon called up to the squad. Aged 28, Bakos finally became a full international on 29 February 2012 in a 2-1 victory over Turkey. “I simply enjoyed every minute of being on out the pitch,” he recalls.

Now a regular in the Slovakia side, Bakos has played in four of his country’s five 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying games. With him in the line-up, Slovakia have won two and drawn two of their qualifiers. The only match he didn’t feature in, against Greece, ended in a 1-0 defeat.

Given that Bakos, a self-confessed Barcelona fan, followed Slovakia’s progress at South Africa 2010 as a fan, it is all the more incredible that he can now legitimately dream of representing his nation at next year’s global showdown.

“We may not be in the best position in qualifying right now, but there’s no chance of us throwing the towel in,” Bakos said. Slovakia currently sit third in their group, two points behind Greece and five behind leaders Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“Even though we lost against Greece, there’s still plenty for us to build on from our performance in that match,” he continued. “I still believe we can reach Brazil. Our team has enough quality to get the necessary points, even against our direct rivals.”

Such comments offer a reminder of Bakos’ never-say-die attitude to the game. And given the way his career has panned out so far, it would come as no surprise if success with Slovakia was just around the corner.