By Maura Gladys
Slovakia grabbed the world’s attention in last summer’s World Cup when they upset defending champion Italy to advance to the Round of 16 in the country’s first appearance in a major world tournament. Now, they’re on a quest to prove that that unlikely run was not a fluke and that they have a promising future as a rising world power. They took a key step towards that objective with a 1-0 win over Andorra on Saturday.
The win featured appearances from several Slovak stars including World Cup hero Robert Vittek, captain Marek Hamsik and goalkeeper Jan Mucha, but the only goal of the match came from Filip Sebo, a 27-year-old journeyman striker who failed to make manager Vladimir Weiss’s squad last summer. Sebo tapped a Robert Vittek cross past a helpless goalkeeper in the 21st minute to put the Repre ahead, and they were happy to sit on that lead for the rest of the match.
It may not have been the most dominant win, but it was key to Slovakia’s qualification hopes. Entering the weekend, Slovakia sat in fourth place in Group B. But Russia was shockingly held to a scoreless draw by lowly Albania and Ireland defeated Macedonia 2-0, giving Slovakia, Russia and Ireland identical 3-1-1 records and creating a three-way tie at the top of the group. With five qualifying matches remaining for the Repre, including one each against Ireland and Russia, they now control their own destiny. But at this stage, every point is vital, and this weekend’s win was huge in ensuring that they didn’t fall behind the leaders.
Each victory towards qualification is also important for the future of Slovakian soccer. What the Repre did in South Africa was fantastic, and introduced the world to Slovakia. But in order to keep growing, they need to establish themselves as a consistent presence at major tournaments. To make it to the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, and then to not qualify for Euro 2012 would be a devastating blow.
It’s also important because by qualifying for a major tournament the Repre are no longer punching above their weight. Weiss can field a side that boasts talent from some of Europe’s top clubs, including Liverpool, Napoli, Everton and Rangers, and cull from a domestic league that just produced a UEFA Champions League group stage team. With this kind of talent, qualification should no longer be an aspiration, but an expectation.
The Repre’s next qualification match is a rematch with Andorra on June 4th. Things pick up after the summer when they play Ireland on Sept. 2, Armenia on Sept. 6, Russia on Oct. 7 and Macedonia on Oct. 11. Hopefully come October, they will already have a comfortable lead and can focus on writing the next successful chapter of Slovakia soccer history.