15 June ~ Slovakia play their first ever game in a World Cup finals in Rustenburg today. Even in a country whose people are not noted for over-optimism, it is regarded as winnable given that the opponents are New Zealand. A 3-0 win over Costa Rica in Bratislava on June 5 eased one or two concerns expressed beforehand in the mainstream Slovak media and on online forums. Even Sport, a daily newspaper that has been consistently supportive of coach Vladimir Weiss and his team, had noted that four of Slovakia’s five strikers were short of fitness and/or form. "It is unreasonable," read one editorial, "to keep relying on Stanislav Sestak for goals."
The bloggers, meanwhile, had been critical of the "negative" playing style adopted in recent friendlies. As if in response, Weiss sent his side out in an attacking 4-4-2 formation. Robert Vittek and Filip Holosko, two forwards who had been fighting injury, played 60 and 30 minutes respectively alongside Sestak, with Vittek scoring Slovakia’s second goal.
After the Costa Rica game, much media focus was on the ankle injury that had forced Martin Skrtel off after just ten minutes. Since arriving in South Africa, Skrtel has been shown on TV undergoing strenuous-looking individual exercises and giving assurances that he will be ready for today. While Skrtel is often said to be indispensible to Slovakia, Kornel Salata, who replaced him against Costa Rica, is actually a reliable alternative.
As for Weiss, he seems delighted to be in South Africa and thus away from some of the off-field aspects of his job that irritate him back in Slovakia. Two days before the Costa Rica game, he criticised the organization of an autograph-signing event in which the squad took part, saying that the young fans had had to wait too long to get their heroes’ signatures. Then, when informed that advance ticket sales for Costa Rica numbered only 3,000, he muttered darkly "if people don’t turn out to watch us now, they never will".
The number is certainly shockingly low but there were mitigating circumstances. Parts of Slovakia had suffered weeks of torrential rain and some of the worst floods in history. Pasienky, the venue chosen for the match, is open on three sides and only around 800 seats were available in the non-VIP covered sections. As it turned out, the sun shone and 7,000 people paid on the day, almost filling the ground. Pasienky doesn’t lend itself naturally to atmosphere but the fans did their best, with horns, drums and a colourful flag-waving display as the team took a lap of honour. The good news about Skrtel lightened the mood still more.
Overall most of Slovakia is behind Weiss and his team. There are certainly no accusations of nepotism, even though the coach’s son, Vladimir Junior, is a certain starter against New Zealand. The right-winger is seen as one player capable of providing the inspiration which might be needed to overcome the Kiwis and maintain the hope, cautiously expressed though it is, that Slovakia have a chance of advancing from Group F. James Baxter