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Under-21 footballers finish fourth, win Olympic berth

Despite a heartbreaking final loss to Spain which snatched the bronze medal from the host nation, Slovakia scored a major triumph in qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney this September at the the U-21 European Football Championships.
Slovakia grabbed fourth place ahead of established European giants such as England, Turkey and the Netherlands, stunning England with a 2-0 victory after defeating Turkey 2-1 and holding the eventual winners and initial favourites, Italy, to a 1-1 draw. Pipped by Italy as winners of their group on goal difference, the Slovaks were denied the chance of meeting the Czech Republic in the final in what would have been a repeat of last month's hockey world championship final. Nonetheless, in beating England and finishing fourth at the tournament, they qualified for the Games.


The Slovaks celebrated after defeating England 2-0 to secure a place in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
photo: TASR

Despite a heartbreaking final loss to Spain which snatched the bronze medal from the host nation, Slovakia scored a major triumph in qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney this September at the the U-21 European Football Championships.

Slovakia grabbed fourth place ahead of established European giants such as England, Turkey and the Netherlands, stunning England with a 2-0 victory after defeating Turkey 2-1 and holding the eventual winners and initial favourites, Italy, to a 1-1 draw. Pipped by Italy as winners of their group on goal difference, the Slovaks were denied the chance of meeting the Czech Republic in the final in what would have been a repeat of last month's hockey world championship final. Nonetheless, in beating England and finishing fourth at the tournament, they qualified for the Games.

The team's prowess has been widely hailed as the greatest success Slovak football has enjoyed since the country's independence in 1993, and comes on the heels of the outstanding performances of the nation's hockey players in reaching the finals of the World Championships in May, the Ružomberok women's basketball team which won the European club championships, and the recent victory of a Slovak men's tennis team in the Davis Cup.

Team coach Dušan Radolský was due to leave for Australia on June 8 on a reconnaissance trip before the team begins preparations for the daunting task of taking on Brazil, South Africa and Japan in their group matches down under.

Ivan Sochor of the Slovak FA said that the tournament itself had been a massive success, not just for Slovakia, but for the organisers themselves. Feared fan violence, especially at flashpoint matches such as the England-Turkey game, failed to materialise and the relative success of the Slovak team buoyed not just the home fans, but Slovak football in general.

"It was a big success just to reach the championship finals in the first place," Sochor said. "It was a slight disappointment for us with the [third-place] match against Spain because we wanted to get the bronze medal, but we didn't do so well in that match.

"But our main goal was to get to the Olympics and everybody is happy that we managed that."

With the team itself to fly to Australia on September 1, Radolský will be using the intervening two and a half months to closely study Brazil and other teams Slovakia will be lining up against at the Games.

The tournament was also a parade ground for some of Slovakia's finest young footballing talent. Club scouts from around the world watched the matches, hoping to spot another Vratislav Greško - a Slovak-born defender for the German Bundesliga giants Beyer 04 Leverkusen.

"The championships were a big incentive for many scouts. It was good exposure for a lot of the young players in Slovakia," said Sochor.

Despite hosting the tournament, the Slovaks were relatively unfancied going into their opening round match against Turkey. However, the 8,000-strong crowd got what they came for when the team earned their hard-fought first win against Turkey with Greško opening the tournament scoring.

Radolský was ecstatic after the opening victory. "We controlled the game throughout the 90 minutes. We did everything as we had planned and my players executed everything the way I had told them to do."

Italy counted themselves lucky to escape with a point after their clash with Slovakia. Leading 1-0 and clearly dominating proceedings, playmaker Andrea Pirlo was sent off in the 55th minute, turning the tide of the game. Only small goalkeeping miracles from AC Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati gave Italy a share of the spoils with Greško the architect behind the 73rd minute Slovak equaliser - Peter Babnič rising above the Italian defence to head home a curling corner.

"We knew it was going to be a tough match. Italy has no doubt one of the best Under-21 squads in the world and we knew we had to perform at our best to get something out of this match," Radolský said of the Slovak performance.

Slovakia then went on to shock the highly-fancied England side with a well-deserved victory, eclipsing their more vaunted opponents with goals from Peter Babnič and Szilárd Németh, to then face Spain in the third-place play-off.

The Spanish side, however, crushed what was becoming a Slovak soccer dream, dominating throughout. Slovakia had difficulties coming to terms with the strong Spanish man-marking in midfield and their chances were limited to long range efforts, with the Spaniards taking control of the match.

Despite coming out fresher in the second half and immediately attacking the Spanish goal they conceded a penalty in the 60th minute. Heartbreak followed as home goalkeeper Marek Čontofalský saved Ivan Ania's spot-kick, but Jordi Ferron crashed the rebound home.

Slovakia will open their Olympic campaign on September 14 in Brisbane playing in group D. Italy has Honduras, Nigeria and Australia in group A, Spain will fight against Chile, Morocco and Korea in group B, and the Czech Republic against USA, Cameroon and Kuwait. The top two from each group will progress to the quartefinals, with the final to be held in Sydney on September 30th.

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