2 March ~ On March 3 Slovakia play Norway in a friendly. There should be a sell-out crowd in Zilina in full patriotic voice since the match will be Slovakia's last at home before their first appearance as an independent nation at the final stages of a major tournament. That they are going to the 2010 World Cup is in no small measure down to the hard work and occasional genius of their coach, Vladimir Weiss Senior.
The timing of Weiss's appointment – before the start of qualification for South Africa – was right for all parties. Slovakia, after an inept failure to reach Euro 2008, needed sorting out. Weiss had taken his club Artmedia Petrzalka (of Bratislava) to Slovak domestic titles in 2005 and 2008 and overseen a creditable Champions League campaign in 2005. As national coach, he was blessed with luck right from the start. The draw for 2010 qualifying put Slovakia in a group with two sides, Poland and the Czech Republic, who were clearly in decline. Slovenia and Northern Ireland looked beatable, San Marino were cannon fodder. All went fairly smoothly until a slip at what, at the time, seemed to be the decisive moment. Needing only a draw at home to Slovenia in the penultimate group game to qualify, Slovakia seized up and lost 2-0. They now had to win in Poland. It was a wild, snowy night (watching on TV, it was impossible to follow the ball) but the Slovaks repeated one of Weiss's old Artmedia tricks – striking early and defending. The winning goal was actually an own goal and the Polish defender responsible was named as "Slovakia's best friend of 2009" on one TV channel.
Tactics and slices of luck apart, Weiss's genius also seems to lie in his ability to use the dissatisfaction of some of his players with their clubs to the national team's advantage. Of the Slovak squad, only Martin Skrtel and Napoli's Marek Hamsik could be described as regulars with big clubs (and even that sentence depends partly on your definitions). Stanislav Sestak, the leading scorer in qualifying, is a first-choice striker with Bochum but struggles at times with injury. Vladimir Weiss Junior, the coach's son, had to leave Manchester City temporarily for first-team chances with Bolton, Miroslav Stoch was loaned by Chelsea to Twente Enschede. Marek Cech has complained of lack of action at West Brom, Peter Pekarik rarely gets a game for Wolfsburg. Yet these players are consistently excellent for their country. Whether it's frustration or something else that drives them, Slovakia will surely be spirited, tricky opponents in South Africa.
There's a togetherness about the team but this wouldn't be Slovakia if there wasn't a certain fractiousness off the field. Immediately after qualification, there were suggestions in the Slovak media that Weiss was dissatisfied with aspects of his job. He certainly makes no secret of his frustration at the lack of a decent national stadium. When a November friendly at home to the USA drew just 7,200 fans to the dilapidated Tehelne Pole in Bratislava, Weiss sided with the stayaways, saying he wouldn't pay to bring his own family to watch a game in such conditions. This despite the fact that the Slovak FA had kept securing short-term renewals of the ground's UEFA licence so that international games could continue to be played there. When a later friendly with Chile attracted a 11,000 sell-out to Zilina, Weiss expressed his belief that future games should be played there, rather than in Bratislava.
There is no question whose side the fans are on. The Chile game was punctuated by chants of "the FA are a bunch of wankers" (rough translation), while Weiss and his players were cheered to the rafters. Another incident involving Weiss is equally telling. In December 2008, on the day when MSK Zilina were due to play away to Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup, Weiss came through security at Bratislava Airport to be greeted by a group of Birmingham-bound Zilina fans, mostly muscular, shaven-headed and the worse for wear for alcohol. "Hey, Mr Weiss," they shouted, "come with us to Birmingham". No sane person would have accepted this invitation but Weiss refused it with class – a smile and a wave. The Zilina fans applauded him. His reign as Slovakia coach was in its infancy then but he must have been on the right track if he'd already won the respect of fans of former rivals. On March 3, they'll be cheering him again. James Baxter