THIS ONE'S BEEN AWHILE IN THE MAKING. AFTER SLOVAKIA AND THE CZECH REPUBLIC WENT THEIR OWN WAYS IN 1993, FEW BELIEVED THE FORMER WOULD MAKE MUCH OF AN IMPACT IN soccer. After all, most of the old Czechoslovakian stars were, in fact, Czech, and it was hard to see Slovakia, with just over five million people, competing on the world stage anytime soon.
But, surprisingly, the Slovak game has grown, virtually year by year, with the Repre narrowly missing the World Cup qualification in 2002, losing to Spain in the playoffs for 2006 and, this time, topping its qualification group (which included the Czechs). It's an achievement, especially when you consider Slovakia's lack of depth; some starters, such as Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel, play for top European teams (Napoli and Liverpool, respectively), but others, such as Robert Vittek and Jan Mucha, operate in smaller ponds.
Coach Vladimir Weiss has responded by getting creative. He has promoted a pair of 20-year-old wingers—his son, Vladimir Jr., and Miroslav Stoch—and rotated his squad (just four players started as many as eight of the 10 qualifiers), giving everyone a sense of belonging and tailoring his lineup to the opposition. So far, Slovakia is a Cinderella crying out for a superstar (Hamsik?) to emerge and carry the team.
Stanislav Sestak was the unlikely hero in qualifying, scoring six goals, but given his pedestrian career, has he run out of miracles? Vittek is a natural goal scorer but has tailed off over the last two years after being one of the most coveted frontmen in Europe.
Hamsik is the star, in terms of both goals and leadership, but little (5' 6") Stoch is the cult hero, driving opponents crazy with his mazy dribbles and sudden acceleration. Weiss Jr. should force his way into the starting lineup with his tactical intelligence and energy. Look for the possible return of Marek Mintal: The mercurial attacking midfielder retired from the team a year ago but could be persuaded to return now that Slovakia has qualified. He would be a big plus in terms of quality but a potential minus for team cohesion.
The knock on Skrtel has been that he's a big man who plays small. He can't afford to do that in South Africa. With his athleticism Jan Durica is a natural foil for Skrtel, while Peter Pekarik is a consistent fullback. On the left, Marek Cech has struggled with injuries and poor form, but he should recover. Mucha has developed nicely in goal and is somewhat underrated.