28 June ~ With three shots on target in 180 minutes of football against New Zealand and Paraguay and goals carelessly given away in each game, Slovakia looked like they would be exiting the World Cup as its most insipid team. The only real entertainment they were providing was off the field, courtesy of coach Vladimir Weiss’s habit of leaving press conferences in a huff at the first hint of either a pointless or mildly probing question. No one would have believed that the side was about to knock out the holders in the tournament’s most thrilling game to date.
Perhaps, though, we should have listened more carefully to the players before the Italy game. Right-back Peter Pekarik, for example, seemed rather in awe of the performance given by Paraguay when they beat Slovakia 2-0 but his words about Italy suggested no more than polite respect. Marek Hamsik even dared to believe that Italy were "more predictable than Paraguay" and could be upset if he and his team-mates could significantly improve their own game. At the time, these words sounded like bruised egos trying to reassert themselves. Now, in the afterglow of a 3-2 win, they seem prescient.
Before and after Paraguay, meanwhile, Weiss appeared to be in the midst of a public crack-up. During a pre-match press gathering, an innocuous question from a Reuters journalist was the cue for him to walk out of the room, pausing only to thank Slovak journalists whom he described as "better than foreign ones". His compatriots did not have long to wallow in this praise. On Monday, a reporter from commercial TV channel Markiza was abused and threatened for wondering aloud whether Weiss felt there had been any errors in his team selection and tactics for Paraguay.
In the build-up to Italy, the coach refused to apologise directly but did "regret the breakdown in relations between the press and myself". After the game, his tearful hugging of his players and staff, heartfelt expressions of thanks to the Slovak fans and declarations of love to his wife were all suggestive of someone who had undergone a personal crisis followed by a particularly exultant and very public form of therapy. Later, in the tunnel, the players refused to speak to any journalists. The Italian press wondered why – "They’ve beaten the world champions and they don’t want to talk?" – but to Slovaks it was obvious that this was all about continued solidarity with Weiss.
Weiss’s behaviour will probably, at some point, have consequences. The Markiza reporter has complained to the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) and official reports have been made to FIFA. For most of Slovakia, though, this is yesterday’s news. The win, progression to the last 16 and the pleasure Slovak people are taking in having their disbelief suspended are the important story now. Optimism in Slovakia does not extend to widespread predictions that Holland too are about to be beaten but the team is now sure of the nation’s high esteem. That will be the case even if Weiss treats more reporters to an obscenity or two. James Baxter