Love Letters To The European Union: Ride The Lightning

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom exited the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. We’re heading to a comparatively recent addition to the European Union this week, and a nation that only gained its independence in 1993. Since then, they’ve produced some outstanding players, and made appearances at two major tournaments. Here, we profile one of the most significant men in the nation’s footballing history, and remember their greatest moment in a game that shocked the world. Slovenská Sila!

 

The Player (and Manager): Vladimir Weiss

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Football coarsed through the genes of the Weiss family. Vladimir Snr enjoyed a career as a no-nonsense centre-back, winning a silver medal at the 1964 Olympics with the Czechoslovakia national team. Vladimir III is currently on the books of Al-Gharafa in Qatar, having graduated through Manchester City’s development team and winning league titles in Scotland and Greece. It’s Vladimir Jnr, however, that has played the biggest part in elevating the standing of Slovakian football.

Born in Bratislava in 1964, Weiss followed in his father’s footsteps and joined local club ČH Bratislava as a teenager, before earning a move to Inter Bratislava and spending seven years marshalling the midfield for the žlto-čierni. In 1988 he was called up to the Czechoslovakia national team for the first time and would go on to earn nineteen caps, three of which arrived during the group stages of the 1990 World Cup. Everything would change on 17th July 1992 as, after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Slovakia declared itself a sovereign state. Having been born on the Slovak side of Czechoslovakia, Weiss declared his intention to represent the newly established Slovak Republic, and would go on to net the winner in Slovakia’s first official international since regaining independence, a 1-0 win over the UAE in Dubai.

Having spent his club career pinballing between clubs either side of the Czech/Slovak divide, Weiss’ playing days wound down at Artmedia Petržalka. Before hanging up his boots, however, the tough-tackling midfielder had taken his first steps into management, being given the top job at the Štadión za Starým mostom in 1999. In his seven years with Petržalka Weiss would turn the club into contenders, winning the Superliga title in 2005 and taking them to the group stage of the Champions League the following season. After a season away in Russia with FC Saturn Ramenskoye, he returned to Petržalka to pick up another league title, before landing the job as manager of the Slovakia national team.

Weiss’ first assignment in charge of The Falcons was to get them to their first major tournament since gaining independence. They’d come close to reaching the World Cup in 2006 under Dušan Galis, eventually being swept aside by Spain in the playoffs, but ahead of the 2010 edition, there would be no such missteps. Given a favourable qualification draw, Slovakia finished top of the group by two points, with victories away to Poland and neighbours the Czech Republic particularly impressive. Calling on a mix of grizzled experience and exuberant youth for the tournament in South Africa, including his 20 year old son, Weiss confounded expectations by guiding the nation through the Group Stage and into the last sixteen. Sadly that success wouldn’t extend to the qualification campaign for Euro 2012, and poor home form in particular saw Slovakia finish fourth in their group, behind Russia, Republic of Ireland and Armenia. With hopes of a second successive tournament dashed, Weiss bade farewell to the national team.

A spell with Kairat in Kazhakstan added two more medals to Weiss’ collection, with the Kazakhstan Cup in 2014 and 2015, before International football came calling again, with Georgia securing the manager’s services. Though working with restricted resources, Weiss has managed to turn the nation’s fortunes around, with 2018 proving a productive year for the Slovak coach, as Georgia lost just one game all year, on the way to victory in League D Group 1 in the inaugural UEFA Nations League, thus securing a playoff place for the 2020 European Championships.

Should Vladimir Weiss mastermind a way to Georgia’s first ever major tournament, he will surely take his place in the history books as one of the most important figures in the nation’s sporting history. A standing he has already secured in his native Slovakia.

 

The Game: Italy 2-3 Slovakia, 2010

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The World Cup in 2010, to be frank, wasn’t very good. Festooned with the filthy fingerprints of FIFA’s corporate influence, any colour and culture generated by hosts South Africa was bled of all saturation by Sepp Blatter and his band of jobsworths. That’s not to mention the questionable circumstances that led to the tournament being held in Africa for the first time, in a country with deep socio-political divides. Of the few flourishes FIFA allowed their hosts to add to the competition, the interminable cacophony of the vuvuzela, a plastic horn instrument native to southern Africa, was the most indelible, with the majority of viewers begging for the month to be over so the droning in their heads at night could stop.

On the pitch, things weren’t much better. Winners Spain passed the opposition and spectators into submission, scoring just eight goals in seven games on their way to lifting the trophy. The final was a farce as the Netherlands attempted to kick their way to the title, rather than play the beautiful football they’ve been associated with for so long. The group stages provided some of the worst matches of international football committed to tape, most notably Uruguay v France and England v Algeria, and moments of magic were few and far between.

Though it wasn’t all bad. Ghana’s run to the quarter-finals was uplifting, despite its dastardly denouement; New Zealand surprised everyone by finishing the tournament as the only team to avoid defeat; Diego Maradona’s reign as Argentina ended in suitably ridiculous circumstances; France brought the meltdown lols and, for a brief moment, everyone forgot about how terrifying North Korea is, as striker Jong Tae-se melted hearts around the world with his tears of pride at singing the national anthem.

The standout game, however, arrived in Group F, where holders Italy needed just a point to avoid the ignominy of tumbling out of the tournament at the first hurdle. Underwhelming draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, both of which saw the Azzuri fall behind, hadn’t been greeted with the usual cliches of ‘the Italians always start slow’ and ‘they’ll grow into the tournament’, though these ignored the clear evidence that this was an Italy side on the wane. Coach Marcello Lippi had largely stuck with the same group of players that had won the nation’s fourth World Cup in Germany four years earlier, with nine of the twenty-three over thirty. Captain Fabio Cannavaro, the oldest member of the squad at 36, had already signalled his intention to retire after the tournament, and had looked a shadow of the player that picked up the Ballon D’or in 2006.

Thankfully for Lippi and his players all that stood in their way of a knockout berth were debutantes Slovakia. Vladimir Weiss’ team had rocketed through qualifying with seven wins from ten thanks to the goals from VfL Bochum midfielder Stanislav Sestak, but had struggled in South Africa. Winston Reid’s stoppage time equaliser had denied the Sokoli a win on their World Cup debut, while Paraguay’s energy had proven too much on matchday two. After all the anticipation, Slovakia’s first experience on the world stage looked like becoming a damp squib.

On a cool Johannesburg afternoon, it soon became clear that the World Champions wouldn’t be having it all their own way. Slovakia offered an early warning when 22-year-old captain Marek Hamsik found himself unmarked in the area but was unable to get his shot on target. That warning wasn’t heeded however, and on 25 minutes a lazy pass from Daniele De Rossi was intercepted by Juraj Kucka, who played in Robert Vittek to slide the opening goal past the outstretched arm of Federico Marchetti . Through the aural blare of vuvuzelas, Slovak spirits soared.

A golden chance to level the scores arrived early in the second half with Andrea Pirlo’s cross causing confusion in the box, but substitute Fabio Quagliarella’s effort was diverted off the line by Martin Sktrel. Minutes later Hamsik’s corner was only half-cleared back to the feet of the Napoli playmaker, and his driven cross was tucked away by Vittek to double the underdogs lead. Italy left staring down the barrel of infamy. Then, nine minutes from time, a glimmer of hope. Simone Pepe surged forward and fed the ball into Quagliarella, and though his effort after a slick one-two with Vincenzo Iaquinta was palmed away by Jan Mucha, Antonio Di Natale was on hand to steer in the rebound. Parity was now in sight.

Forced to blink by Quagliarella’s disallowed goal that had Slovak hearts in mouths, Weiss sent on Kamil Kopúnek with three minutes remaining. The plan had been to stem the tide of Italy’s ceaseless attack by adding some steel into midfield. In practice it turned out a match-winning masterstroke. Two minutes after his introduction, Kopúnek raced onto an innocuous looking throw-in and took his first touch at a World Cup finals to lift the ball over Marchetti and into the empty net. Surely now, Slovakia had pulled off the biggest shock of the tournament. But still their fans were made to sweat, as Quagliarella fired and exquisite chipped drive into the top corner to give the holders a slither of a chance. In the 95th minute, Giorgio Chiellini’s long throw bounced towards the unmarked Pepe at the far post, but the Udinese winger was unable to make any kind of meaningful connection with the ball. Mucha’s goal kick marked the end of an extraordinary game.

Slovakia’s journey would end in the last sixteen against the eventual runners-up, but for those that had made the trip to South Africa, it had been an unforgettable fortnight.

 

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