This summer will see the central European country of Slovakia compete at its first European Championships after qualifying behind Spain from Group C. The landlocked country led by Ján Kozák only lost two games in the process, falling to Spain 2-0 in Ovideo and a shock 0-1 defeat to Belarus at home.
There was plenty to cheer about for the fans as they played some excellent football on the counter, had a decent scoring record and even managed to beat Spain 2-1 in Žilina – a feat that not many teams have achieved over the last decade. Napoli midfielder and vice-captain Marek Hamšík led the team by example, playing a key role in the team’s qualification, chipping in with five goals top finish as the group’s joint top scorer alongside Paco Alcácer.
Even though Slovakia have reached a World Cup (2010) in the past, it is their first Euros and will still be somewhat of an unknown quantity to some readers so we were lucky enough to catch up with Slovak football journalist Lukáš Vráblik to get the low-down on the team that will be taking on England, Russia and Wales in France.
Slovakia had a solid qualifying campaign finishing second behind Spain to reach the finals, what do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016? Is the Slovakian public optimistic?
The team is very confident and people here are quite optimistic before the Euros as their results over the last two or three years have been really good. I would say that Slovakia has a great chance of advancing to the next round, but everything will depend on the form of the squad and injuries going into the finals.
Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?
Of course, Marek Hamšík and Martin Škrtel are the most famous players abroad and they are very important for the national team as well – maybe the only two irreplaceable players in the squad, even if Škrtel does not play for Liverpool regularly at the moment.
Other than those two, the team is based more on collective spirit with many players being essential to perform well as a unit. I should probably mention Škrtel’s centre-back partner Ján Ďurica, right-back Peter Pekarík and wingers Róbert Mak and Vladimír Weiss. Juraj Kucka, who scored two goals in qualifying is also decisive in the midfield as a box-to-box midfielder and a man who makes space for the more creative Hamšík.
The English media are expecting the team to qualify for the next round with ease – can you see Slovakia surprising them?
Slovakia plays the best games against the biggest teams, especially when they are not under pressure. At the South African World Cup in 2010, they beat the World champions Italy, and I don’t see any reason why they could not repeat that. The team is in good form and the atmosphere in the dressing room is great -the coach is a great motivator so anything is possible – even surprising England.
How do you see the group playing out?
I feel that all teams are balanced and have almost the same chance to go further in the competition – only England is superior to the others. I think that Russia, Slovakia and Wales will be fighting for the second and third place – it will be very tight in the end but as I mentioned earlier, I feel Slovakia can qualify if they perform well.
As many readers will not know the team’s style, what kind of tactics do you expect the team to employ during the finals?
Slovakia’s game is based on a solid defence and fast counter-attacks – they are very dangerous in the games when they don’t have to dictate the play and dominate the pitch.
They could have problems if they get into a position where they have to be the more active team and control possession. The Wales game is intriguing as Slovakia may see a bit more of the ball than usual so it will be interesting to see how they deal with that.
Who will be the key players for Slovakia in the summer and are there any potential star players coming through the youth ranks at the moment?
Of course Hamšík and Škrtel are the most important players, but the outcome of games will also depend on how the other players perform. We have to wait and see who coach Ján Kozák includes in his 23-man squad, but any changes from the squads that got us through qualifying would be an enormous surprise – my prediction is that the squad will remain relatively unchanged.
In terms of youth, there are a number of good players emerging at the moment, but only a few of them will be in the squad. Ondrej Duda will be one inclusion – he is often described as Hamšík’s successor. The midfielder has good vision and even though he plays his club football in Poland with Legia Warsaw, a lot of clubs from England, Germany and Italy are rumoured to be interested in securing his services.
Regarding players who won’t make this year’s squad, Matúš Bero from Trenčín is an excellent prospect (Celtic wanted him), again, a similar type of player as Hamšík. At 20-years old, he is already an established first-team player and has a good goals ratio with around one in every three games – a great conversion rate for a midfielder.
Hamšík’s third successor could be 18-year-old László Bénes from Žilina, but he definitely won’t be in the squad this time. One former international compared him to Chris Waddle – he has great technique, a magic left foot and he is far better than a lot of older players in Slovakia. Gazzetta dello Sport also included him in a list of 50 biggest talents so remember the name.
What is the state of domestic football nowadays? Are Slovan Bratislava still the dominant force?
The league has improved a little, but it is still far behind compared to say, Poland. A lot of clubs have financial problems – clubs from the biggest cities often don’t have a lot of money to pay the players and staff which means they are replaced in the highest levels of the league system by small town or even village sides.
However, there is some optimism in Slovakian football due to results of younger teams, especially the Under-21s, which recently beat both the Netherlands and Turkey home and away during the 2017 UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifying process.
Some improvement has also come about thanks to Trenčín’s transfer philosophy of singing unknown players with the aim of reselling in a few years in conjunction with their youth development that allows talented youngsters first team opportunities (Please see my article on IBWM).
Žilina, who are the second most successful club in the country also mainly rely on young players from their academy. If you take a look through their squad, most of the key players are in their early twenties which is a mightily impressive feat when you consider their success over the years.
Slovan Bratislava has big problems – even as the richest club in the country. Fans don’t come to the matches, they don’t even play at their stadium Tehelné Pole due to safety reasons (a new national stadium is planned to be built on the site) and a lot of average foreign players are on their books. Their philosophy is very unstable and a re-think needs to take place if they are to continue to be the most successful club in the country in the future.
Currently, Trenčín is the best club in the country after winning the Slovak Super Liga for the past two seasons. The aforementioned Matúš Bero is currently the league’s top-scorer with 15 goals with two games remaining. Bero’s team-mate and current Curaçao international Gino van Kessel is also third in the scoring charts with 12 goals.
One good piece of news is that in August a new stadium with approximately 20,000 capacity was opened in Trnava, so we finally have a stadium which can do our country proud – something we haven’t been able to say for a number of years.
A big thank you goes to Lukáš Vráblik for taking time out of his busy schedule and agreeing to the interview. If you are a fan of Slovakian football please be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his work which has been published in FourFourTwo, The Blizzard, IBWM, ESPN, BBC and more.