7 March ~ Slovakia and its football came to the attention of the British media for all the wrong reasons in October 2002 when England’s black players, Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole in particular, were subjected to shocking racial abuse from home fans during a Euro 2004 qualifier in Bratislava. But the Slovak national team might soon field its first-ever black player, in Slovan Bratislava’s 26-year-old midfielder Karim Guédé. Born in Hamburg but of Togolese origin, Guédé moved to Slovakia in the summer of 2006, joining Artmedia Bratislava. In August of this year, he will fulfil FIFA’s requirement that players wishing to represent a country other than that of their origin first have to be legally resident there for five years.
Slovakia’s citizenship laws, meanwhile, state that applicants have to live for eight years in the country but that exceptions can be made if the application is in the national interest. Such an exception, it is believed, will be made in Guédé’s case.
The Slovak federation (SFZ) and national team coach Vladimir Weiss would like to have Guédé available for the end of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign this autumn. After a promising start in Group B, including a victory in Russia, Slovakia faltered, earning only a single point from October matches against Armenia and Ireland. More recently, they suffered an embarrassing defeat away to Luxembourg in a friendly arranged specifically to practise the art of dealing with weaker opposition ahead of this month’s fixture in Andorra.
Weiss urgently requires a holding midfielder player, a need Guédé seems ideally placed to fill. He has a fine record in Slovak club football, helping Artmedia to a league and cup double in 2007-08 and winning another cup medal with current employers Slovan last season. Guédé can count on the personal trust of Weiss, who coached Artmedia in that double-winning season. Weiss has also expressed an interest in another black player, 21-year-old MŠK Žilina midfielder Babatounde Bello, who arrived in Slovakia around the same time as Guédé and impressed during his club's Champions League campaign earlier this season. Complications might arise in his case from a brief appearance he made for Benin in a game against Sudan when he was just 15.
Black footballers are increasingly prominent in Slovak football. Guédé and Bello were recently joined by Žilina’s Gambian striker Momodou Ceesay and Ivorian winger Koro Kone of Spartak Trnava in a list, published by the national daily Šport, of the ten most valuable players in the domestic league. Of course, neither this prominence nor the likelihood of Guédé winning international caps should be seen as signs that Slovak football has rid itself of racism.
Concerted abuse of the kind endured by Heskey and Cole is certainly rarer at Slovak stadiums today than it was in 2002, but instances do still occur. But if and when Guédé is named in the Slovakia squad, dissenting voices are more likely to arise out of the dislike felt for his current club by fans of provincial sides than from the colour of the player’s skin. James Baxter