A Velvet Draw for Two Divorcées of European Soccer

September 7, 2009, 6:59 PM

Stanislav Sestak of Slovakia celebrated his goal against the Czech Republic on Saturday. (Peter Hudec/European Pressphoto Agency)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — “Are you seeing the beaches of South Africa for us?” a reporter asked Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss after Slovakia’s 2-2 draw in a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic on Saturday night. Weiss smiled tightly and said, “Not yet.”

The reporter may have been a tad misguided about the attraction of the beach in South Africa next June – it will be winter there – but his question was illustrative of the country’s focus on qualify for its first World Cup. Weiss’s answer was realistic. But he, like all of Slovakia, can be more than cautiously optimistic. All Slovakia has to do now is avoid defeat and this tiny nation of 5.5 million, long over-shadowed in everything by former partners the Czechs, can make its World Cup debut.

The game on Saturday night was loaded with neediness. Slovakia sat atop Group 3 with 15 points from six games. The Czech Republic, considered the top-seed in the group last year, had only 8 points from six games. For the Czechs, victory was imperative and would improve the country’s chances of taking second place in the group and a play-off spot for the World Cup. If the Czechs had lost, then their chances of making the World Cup would be abysmal and Slovakia’s chances would be a near-certainty. That is the deliciousness that Slovakia craves. It is a vital part of Slovakia’s slow march to true independence and coming of age from its youth as part of Czechoslovakia.

This Czech-versus-Slovakia tension is one the great rivalries in world soccer. While much of the world may have been paying keen attention to the game between Argentina and Brazil on Saturday night, here it was just as intense, just as rich in pride and passion.

Slovakia’s current slogan to entice tourists is “Slovakia, the little big country.” A cute phrase but it understates Slovakia’s ambitions. Here in Bratislava there is intense appetite to stop being the little brother to the big shot Czech Republic, especially in sport.

For the Slovaks this was an emotionally-charge, potentially myth-making game. The two countries used to be one. Since they split, in 1993, the Czechs have been a powerful force in European soccer. The very fact that the neighboring countries had been drawn together in a qualifying group, again, was exciting for the improving, anxious-to impress Slovaks. It had happened in qualifying for World Cup 1998 and Euro 2008, but Slovakia was always an also-ran. This time it’s different.

In April, Slovakia traveled to Prague and beat the Czechs 2-1. Czech Coach Petr Rada, was fired and six players were banned from the team for allegedly partying with local women of dubious repute. On the day of a defeat by the low-level next-door country! Czech team captain Tomás Ujfalusi responded by announcing his retirement from international games. In Bratislava, they smiled.

“Obviously, every sports game between Czech and Slovak Republics after the 1993 Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia is a bedlam game, very emotional and enthusiastic,” said a spokesman at the office of the mayor of Bratislava before Saturday’s match. “Much more for smaller and often overlooked Slovakia than for Czech Republic. Now, we have the first real chance to qualify for the big sports event in the most popular game on earth. It is the Match of the Year here.”

The majority of the 24,000 fans who packed the old, run-down Tehelne Pole stadium agreed. The 2,300 traveling Czech fans heard and felt the deafening sound of Slovak supporters long before the game began. The Slovaks even sang that hockey crowd favorite, “nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey, goodbye” as the Czech team warmed up. (The N.H.L. is followed closely here, thanks to the success of several Slovak players with Canadian and U.S. teams.) The home crowd had a deafening roar for everything, including the troupe of cheerleaders who danced, pom-poms and all, in the center circle. It was a mostly male crowd, many of them very tipsy, and it seemed that the superior beauty of Slovak women over their Czech counterparts was being celebrated emphatically.

There was relief too that the Czech team named to play might be less of a threat than imagined. Under new coach Ivan Hasek, the formidable Jan Koller had returned to international duty. Milan Baros, the Galatasaray striker, returned also, and Tomáš Rosický of Arsenal was back after an injury-plagued year. It turned out Koller would play, but Baros was on the bench and Rosicky wasn’t named at all.

Yet in the first ten minutes of the game, Slovak fans held their breath. The Czechs started at a blistering pace of attack and had three corners in three consecutive minutes. Slovak defender Martin Skrtel, of Liverpool, had a nervy time marking Koller as ball after ball arrived from the wings toward the tall striker. He did well to curtail Koller, but it was 30 minutes before the Slovak team looked composed, ready to attack. It was the coach’s son, 19-year-old Vladimir Weiss, who emerged as the most potent threat. Weiss, who plays in England for Manchester City, cut through the Czech defense several times, dribbling the ball past player after player, but failed to make a precise pass to a teammate. At half-time it was 0-0 and the Slovak players and supporters looked relieved while the Czechs were clearly frustrated.

A more confident Slovak team started the second half, which turned into a thrilling 45-minute epic of ups and downs. Stanislav Sestak gave Slovakia the lead in the 60th minute, fittingly. It was Sestak who scored twice against Poland to start this dream campaign for Slovakia and he’d scored the first goal in that famous victory over the Czech Republic in Prague in April. A volcanic eruption of noise from the home crowd followed but celebrations stopped minutes later when outrageously sloppy defending by Slovakia left Daniel Pudil unmarked and gifted an easy equalizer.

At 73 minutes, agony switched to ecstasy again as Slovakia’s Zabavnik was clearly pulled to the ground in the Czech area and a penalty was awarded. Marek Hamsik, the Napoli midfielder, scored from the spot with aplomb and then lost his cool in wildly celebrating, running toward the delirious home fans. For that he got a yellow card. A minute later, he lost his cool again in a wild tackle on a Czech player, got his second yellow card and was ejected.

The mood in the stadium shifted uneasily. Leading by a single goal, but down to 10 men, Slovakia fell into desperate defending. There was a bitter inevitability when Baros, who had replaced Koller, equalized for the Czechs in the 84th minute. The draw meant the Czechs remain seven points behind Slovakia in Group 3 qualifying, but there was to be no myth-making elimination of Czech hopes. No crushing of the big shot neighbors. “We were six minutes away from South Africa,” a Slovak journalist said to me with a sigh as we walked to the post-match press conference.

There, Ivan Hasek acknowledged that Skovakia had played well, soaking up Czech pressure, but declined to say that Czech chances of making it to South Africa were over. With Group 3 competitors Poland also gaining a single point in a draw with Northern Ireland while events in Bratislava played out, Hasek said the Czechs had every reason to keep fighting. “But it will be a fight,” he said.

When it was Vladimir Weiss’s turn, he emphasized that he was happy with a draw. He obviously sensed the deep disappointment – based on giddy, pre-game expectations – that colored the questions from the Slovak reporters. “It’s about the next game,” he said several times. That next game is against Northern Ireland in Belfast on Wednesday. “The key to South Africa is there on the field at Windsor Park in Belfast,” Weiss said, trying to bring discussion to a close.

He didn’t want to hear about the beaches of South Africa. With Slovakia still topping the group, a trip first to Belfast is fine with Weiss. Hamsik, now banned for at least one game, will be a loss, but avoiding defeat against Northern Ireland is perfectly possible. His country, however, is obsessing about South Africa, and emphatically ensuring that the neighbors don’t get to make that trip. That would make it the best trip, ever.

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