The Slovak Under-21 team has their eye on Olympic qualification.
The qualification round for the European Championships began last August and will conclude in October 1999. The Slovak squad started in impressive fashion by racing out of the gate to win their first four matches, firmly entrenching themselves at the top of their group standings. The Slovak team is now almost assured of qualifying in spite of a recent rash of injuries which has forced them to rely more on inexperienced players and has resulted in a loss and a draw in their last two matches.
Slovakia's qualifying group pits them against Romania, Portugal, Azerbaijan and Hungary. After six matches, Slovakia has earned 13 points, good for first place in the group ahead of Romania's 11, Portugal's 8, Azerbaijan's 4 and Hungary's 3. Having survived its last two sub-par performances to hold on to first place, only a dramatic change in fortune will prevent the Slovaks from advancing.
Coach Dušan Radolský said that his team has been playing so well in the international competition because competition in Slovakia's professional league is so stiff. Of the 45 players who have played or are currently playing for the Slovak squad, almost all of them play in the Slovak SuperLiga, which enables the players to gain experience against skilled, professional football players, he said.
The first match for the Slovaks was a 2-1 victory over Azerbaijan. Their strong start was followed by two consecutive 1-0 victories over Portugal and Romania. The next match, against Hungary, provided the team's first laugher of the tournament as they dominated in a 4-1 victory.
The Slovaks suffered the first blemish on their perfect record on June 3 in Mafra, Portugal against the Portugese squad. Nursing a one-goal lead in the waning minutes of the game, Slovakia allowed Portugal to strike for the equalizer in the 90th minute. The tie ended the perfect Slovak streak, but the several injuries incurred during the match worried the coach more than the result of the game.
"It would be a shame [not to qualify] with our current promising position," Radolský said. "I'm worried about the health of our players, especially the left defensive side. Burák and Edward Hrnčar are injured and mid-fielder Greško, too. We probably won't be able to avoid having to experiment with player positions."
The injuries did indeed force the coach to experiment, with disastrous results. Going into their last match against the Hungarian team on June 7, the Slovaks (undefeated) and the Hungarians (winless) looked to be a lopsided contest. The Hungarians were not impressed by their adversaries, however, and handed the Slovaks a 3-0 thrashing in Budapest.
"The Hungarians played better than usual," Radolský said after the defeat. "Their performance was rewarded with great goals. We also had several chances to score... but even if we had managed to score, I'm afraid it wouldn't have been enough for a victory in Budapest."
According to the tournament rules, the top two teams from each group automatically advance to the European Championships. With two matches remaining, against Romania [September 4 at ŠKP Stadium in Dúbravka] and in Azerbaijan [October] the Slovaks would need to lose twice with Portugal winning twice in order not to qualify automatically.
Teams qualifying for the European championships must finish in the top five of that tournament in order to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. "I am definitely optimistic," Radolský said. "We will do everything we can not to waste the hard work we've put in because to qualify for the Olympics would be a historic success."
12. Jul 1999 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri