In his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush famously confused Slovenia and Slovakia. The mistake was said to reflect the candidate’s ignorance of foreign affairs. But unhappily for Slovakia, it is a remarkably common mistake, even in Europe.
Slovakia's population has been left with a pessimistic mindset after decades of oppression. In the 20th century alone, the country went from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Czechoslovakia, to a separate German-controlled state during World II and back to Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia.
Though Slovakia gained independence in 1993, it is still overshadowed by the Czech Republic. That was true in sports too — until Slovakia’s stunning triumph in the 2002 world hockey championship. In February it again surpassed the Czechs on the ice, reaching the Olympic semis where it almost upset host Canada.
Though Slovaks were part of a glorious Czechoslovakian soccer tradition — the Czechoslovak team reached the World Cup finals in both 1934 and 1962 — a Slovak soccer tradition has been slow to develop. The 2010 World Cup should provide a good launch and the youth of this team should keep it competitive in the ensuing years.
Slovakia World Cup History: First World Cup appearance for the 17-year-old nation, formed in a peaceful breakup with what is now Czech Republic.
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Slovakia World Cup Conventional Wisdom: Another country that — after qualifying at the expense of its former big brother, the Czech Republic — already regards the World Cup as a success. Slovakia surprised by winning one of the toughest European groups, defeating both Poland and the Czechs on the road. Having drawn one of the weakest teams in the field for its opener, Slovakia could challenge for the second round.
Slovakia World Cup Team Coach: Vladimir Weiss
At 45, Weiss will be one of the younger coaches in South Africa. But he has an excellent pedigree as part of the country’s most famous soccer family; he played for Czechoslovakia in the 1990 World Cup, his father, Vladimir, played in the 1964 Olympics, and his son, Vladimir, is on the current Cup squad. The qualifying success has earned him the respect of the team and the entire nation.
Slovakia World Cup Team Strength: Young legs and a willingness to attack proved fruitful in qualification. The team averaged more than two goals per game.
Slovakia World Cup Team Weakness: Youth seldom is served in the World Cup and the Slovakian team is very inexperienced to boot, with South Africa its first major tournament. It surrendered more goals — one per game — than any European group-winner.
Slovakia World Cup Key Player: Marek Hamsik
At only 22, Hamsik has been named captain, an indication of the team’s youth as well as a testament to the extraordinary hopes for his talent. In three seasons with Naples in Serie A, he has displayed moments of brilliance that get him mentioned in the same breath with Naples’ greatest player ever, Diego Maradona. Hyperbole aside, Hamsek is a dazzler with either foot and the offense will run through him in the midfield. He can finish, too — a dozen goals in 33 games this season. “If we had three Hamsiks,” says Slovak soccer writer Mojmir Stasko, “we could go to the semis.”