There may still be nearly three years to go until the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, but excitement levels are already building thanks to the events of 30 July’s Preliminary Draw in Rio de Janeiro. That is certainly the case in Slovakia, where fans are still revelling in the achievements of a senior side that shocked the likes of Czech Republic and Poland to top their group in qualifying for South Africa 2010, thus securing their first-ever major finals appearance since independence in 1993.
Part of the Slovak squad on their African adventure, where they sank 2006 world champions Italy 3-2 in Group F before losing 2-1 to eventual finalists the Netherlands in the Round of 16, was West Bromwich Albion’s Marek Cech. So, who better than the experienced defender to gauge the mood in the Slovakia camp after they were drawn alongside Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein in European Zone Group G on the road to Brazil 2014?
“I think that the draw was very kind to us,” the 28-year-old told FIFA.com. “If you can look at the teams in the first pot, we could have got the likes of Spain or Portugal and we got Greece. Nothing against Greece, but anybody who could have their pick of opponents from the first pot would choose them. That said, they won EURO 2004 in Portugal and they have a lot of experience of playing difficult games.”
So does this versatile performer, able to play anywhere down the left flank as well as in a defensive-midfield role, feel the Bojovni Jondovci have what it takes to repeat their South Africa 2010 qualifying heroics? “Yes, we’ve a good enough team and coaching staff to be able to fight for our ticket to Brazil,” said Cech, who has 45 senior caps and five goals for his country. “Our opening games will be the most important, particularly those matches against our rivals for qualification. And providing I can stay fit and am still performing, I’d love to play in the World Cup in Brazil - football is like a religion over there.
“Slovakia is a small nation and so every player in the national team is a key man. We have a good balance in the side, with no big stars or celebrities,” continued Cech, though the Repre set-up does include the likes of Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel and Napoli’s Marek Hamsik.
“Our team is young and has the right attitude, while we’ve got good players playing for quality sides in major leagues. The standard of the Slovak league is also on the up. Our successful World Cup qualifying campaign last time out was down to our team spirit and I hope we can hold onto that because it’s vital.”
That valuable commodity is also serving the eastern Europeans well in their bid to reach the UEFA EURO 2012. In third place in their section but level on points with leaders Republic of Ireland and Russia, Vladimir Weiss’ charges visit the Irish on 2 September and welcome the Russians to Slovakia on 7 October.
“We are expecting very difficult games,” said a clearly cautious Cech. “We’re already focusing on the game against Ireland and, if we’re successful, we’ll take a big step towards winning the group and qualifying for EURO 2012. After that we have a home game against Armenia, which won’t be easy, and then another home match against Russia. There are still a lot of points to play for.”
Unrest at the Hawthorns
Currently plying his trade in the English Premier League, though he has fallen out of favour somewhat since Roy Hodgson’s arrival as West Brom manager in February 2011, where does the former Inter Bratislava, Sparta Praha and FC Porto player see his club future? “No player is happy to sit on the bench and neither am I,” said Cech, who joined the Baggies ahead of the 2008/09 campaign. “I’ve got one more year left on my contract with West Brom and if I get the right opportunity to change club during that time then I will. But if not I’ll be professional and fight hard for a place in the first XI.
“I’ve come up from Slovakia, one of the smallest leagues, to England, the biggest,” continued Cech, who boasts league winners’ medals from his homeland, the Czech Republic and Portugal. “Every league I’ve played in has given me a lot as a professional. At FC Porto we played enjoyable, technical and attacking football. We were always involved in major competitions and were winning all the time, and it was like that at Inter Bratislava and Sparta Prague too. West Brom are another chapter and another good experience in my life and career.”
Finally, what does the gifted left-footer hope to achieve during the remainder of his time in the game? “I’d love to play at EURO 2012, the 2014 World Cup and earn a transfer to a good and ambitious club in a top European league,” he said as the conversation concluded. “And I wouldn’t say no to another league winners’ medal either!”