AN ESTIMATED 40,000 fans welcomed Slovakia's victorious hockey team home on Bratislava's SNP Square on May 12.
photo: Pravda - Marek Velček
"When I saw people's responses on SNP Square I realised that I was watching the modern Slovak nation being born," said Soňa Szomolányi, head of political science at Comenius University in Bratislava.
Slovakia's dramatic 4-3 victory over silver medallists Russia on Peter Bondra's late goal touched off almost 24 hours of public jubilation around the country in a communal celebration not witnessed since the 1989 anti-Communist revolution.
TEAM captain Miro Šatan (centre, reclining) was the tournament's leading point-getter and MVP; assistant captain Peter Bondra (centre, at right with hand on cup) was the leading scorer; Bondra, Šatan and Ziggy Pálffy (far left, at rear) were elected to the all-star team.
"Most of the people on SNP were in their teens, people who don't remember 1989 or [the Warsaw Pact troop invasion in] 1969," Szomolányi said. "For the first time in recent memory, a public demonstration in Slovakia had nothing to do with history, oppression, politics or nationalism. It was a celebration of Slovakia's potential, an acknowledgement the country is capable of taking its place alongside global partners.
"We now have a new Slovak generation - that of 2002."
The political scientist remarked that the crowd on SNP - so often the scene of nationalist and political demonstrations - had sung its victory hymns in English as well as Slovak, and that xenophobia had played no part in the expressions of national pride.
MOST people on SNP were painted in national colours, some more modestly than others.
photo: Pravda - Marek Velček and Slovak Spectator - Zuzana Habšudová
The Slovak side included ethnic Slovaks alongside players with German (Jozef Štümpel) and Hungarian names (Vladimír Országh, Ziggy Pálffy), while leading scorer Bondra was born in Ukraine.
Wanting to be together
The win, secured by Bondra's goal with 1:40 minutes remaining, sent an estimated 40,000 young Slovaks who had watched the game on several large screens on the downtown square on a raucous tour of the city centre, where they slapped hands and screamed victory slogans with thousands of other people who had been watching the game in pubs or at home.
SLOVAKIA plays beside Stalin bust.
photo: Ján Svrček
As buses carrying the players arrived on the square, escorted among others by 20 flag-flying bikers astride wide-frame motorcycles, the crowd sang along to the "We are the champions" sports anthem recorded in the 1970s by British rock group Queen.
Miro Tížik, 29, a sociology teacher at Comenius, said he had been particularly impressed by the evident reluctance of the young fans to go home. "You could see people were simply looking for another occasion to be together," he said.
This reluctance to leave was significant, Tížik explained, because it implied a renewal of faith in common Slovak endeavours that had been lost over the past decade.
"We've seen an immense sense of resignation since 1989 concerning those things that are outside our immediate families, beyond our abilitiy to control, such as unemployment," he said. "As a result, Slovak society has become steadily more individualistic, with people retreating from public life into their own families. Many young people have been leaving Slovakia, because while they believe in their own abilities, they doubt that Slovaks as a society are able to achieve anything really meaningful.
YOUNG, cosmopolitan and intoxicated with joy; fans wait for their heroes on SNP Square May 12.
The path of the Slovak hockey team through the tournament was far from easy. After falling behind 2-0 to Canada in the quarter-final match, Slovakia won on two goals by Bondra and one from captain Miro Šatan; down 2-0 to home side Sweden in the semi-final match, Slovakia recovered for a thrilling 3-2 victory on penalty shots; after blowing a 3-1 lead to allow Russia to tie 3-3 with less than five minutes remaining in the final, Slovakia remained calm and eventually engineered a 2-on-1 break that produced Bondra's winner.
Slovak team manager Peter Štastný called his squad's performance "an example worth following not only in sports but in politics, business and elsewhere - when you have a team with everyone pulling in the same direction, where you have patience and people making sacrifices for each other, you see results."
THOSE who weren't on SNP had just as much fun in pubs like this in Spišská Nová Ves.
photo: Ján Svrček
Szomolányi agreed: "Our players demonstrated that we are a modern country able to compete with the best in the world, and the contribution they made to national identity was in showing that the path to victory lies through struggle and hard work, not closing in on ourselves."
While the gold medal game attracted mainly young people to SNP Square, it also lured older citizens such as former Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, 45.
Strolling along the edge of the crowd in shorts and a backpack, the politician fended away offered beer cans and champagne bottles with a grin.
"When Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in 1993, no one really told Slovaks why we needed our own country, and many questions remained about our national identity," he said.
"Today we are seeing one of the most meaningful answers."