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LETTER FROM A CORRESPONDENT

Majstri sveta: In more ways than one

LIKE most of you, I am still in a daze. The events of the past few weeks, culminating with the dramatic Peter Bondra goal in the 58th minute of the World Ice Hockey Championship game against Russia, have left me speechless, drained, numb and utterly overjoyed.
My sme majstri. We are the champions. That is today the well-deserved mantra of the entire Slovak nation, not just its players. I could go on and on about the feats of Bondra, Miro Šatan, Ziggy Pálffy, Ján Lašák and the rest of the hockey squad. But even the deft skills of these world-class - indeed, world champion - players cannot overshadow what took place among the Slovak citizenry. It was unparalleled positive unity.

LIKE most of you, I am still in a daze. The events of the past few weeks, culminating with the dramatic Peter Bondra goal in the 58th minute of the World Ice Hockey Championship game against Russia, have left me speechless, drained, numb and utterly overjoyed.

My sme majstri. We are the champions. That is today the well-deserved mantra of the entire Slovak nation, not just its players. I could go on and on about the feats of Bondra, Miro Šatan, Ziggy Pálffy, Ján Lašák and the rest of the hockey squad. But even the deft skills of these world-class - indeed, world champion - players cannot overshadow what took place among the Slovak citizenry. It was unparalleled positive unity.

I watched the match against Ukraine in the spa town Piešťany in a pizzeria with a crowd of tensely silent spectators. When Slovakia scored the winning goal in the final five minutes, the roar was deafening; not on TV, mind you, but across the entire city. Slovakia 5, Ukraine 4.

Then there was that meaningless game against Russia - 'meaningless' because both teams had already advanced to the final eight regardless of the outcome. In Fiľakovo, a southern Slovak town of predominantly Hungarian-speaking citizens, I sat in the bar of the Penzión Pepino. The room was a steady hum of Hungarian. Except, that is, when it erupted six times to scream "Góóóóóól!" Slovakia 6, Russia 4.

In the central Slovak mining town Nová Baňa, I watched the Canada game in a pub that features communist wall decorations alongside framed photos of former PM Vladimír Mečiar. With Slovakia trailing 2-0, spirits are low.

But then Bondra halves the score with a goal two seconds before the close of the second period, and old men are jumping and shouting, dancing with young women. "We can do it," the whole bar is singing. "We can do it, boys!" When the Slovaks score two more goals at the beginning of the final period, a man in the corner shouts knowingly over and over again, "I told you we'd be winning by now! I told you!" And a tiny nation now fully believes that it can compete with anyone in the world. Slovakia 3, Canada 2.

The semi-final against the tournament favourite Sweden I watched in Liptovská Kokava, a mountain village below the High Tatras. The pub is packed, every chair is pulled up to the bar, where the TV shares space on a shelf with a massive bust of Stalin. Again, Slovakia falls behind 2-0. But the announcer, who is every bit as emotionally involved as the man to my right in worker's overalls, reminds viewers: "We were also losing to Canada 2-0. Friends, our boys can do it!"

Then Miro Šatan - the man chanting Slovaks on SNP square in Bratislava would three days later call 'God' - scores with less than two minutes left to tie up the game and force overtime. Mayhem. Grown men and women are cackling like children, crying like new-borns and believing in themselves like I have never seen before. Of course the Slovaks win, and the nation again embraces.

An utterly blissful and drunken pensioner grabs me and plants a wet borovička kiss on my cheek as the announcer bellows: "Slovensko proti Rusku! Slovensko proti Rusku vo finále!" Slovakia 3, Sweden 2.

I return to my home city Spišská Nová Ves for the final. But of course you don't need a play-a-play. Anyone with an even remote interest in Slovakia knows by now what happened. Slovakia won. Finally. And a whole nation chanted in unison "My sme majstri sveta!" (We are the champions of the world). Slovakia 4, Russia 3.

Hundreds of thousands take to the streets across the country to celebrate. Intoxicated but largely peaceful revelers hug and kiss, drop to their knees and shout their thanks to the heavens, "Ďakujeme!" They sing 'We are the Champions' hundreds of times, wave and kiss Slovak flags.

The papers say 50,000 people greeted the hockey heroes in Bratislava the next day on SNP square. My landlord - who flew to Sweden for the title match - tells me: "Not even when communism fell were there that many people on SNP. This is unbelievable."

I am not Slovak. I cannot completely relate to the emotions released May 11, 2002. But I do know this: the tournament was the most unforgettable and gratifying sporting event I have ever been lucky enough to witness. What took place here was remarkable. A people so long dominated by various kingdoms and regimes, overshadowed by their Czech brethren, scorned by more 'developed' western countries, and left behind by international groups like Nato, rose up as one and seized the title of 'majstri sveta'.

I have often been critical of this country. As an editor with The Slovak Spectator I wrote editorials criticising everything from Mečiar to tourism officials to the hypocritical ramblings of President Schuster. I did this not because I dislike Slovakia, but rather because I am so emotionally connected to this country. Which is why - and I believe I speak on behalf of the entire expat community here - I am today so proud of Slovakia. What a wonderful achievement: a country of just five million people (by far the smallest in the tournament) taking on the world and emerging as champion.

And not just on the ice. The way the Slovak people united was truly touching. An American friend in Spišská, who was equally amazed by the event, summed it up well afterwards. "What was so incredible was seeing a whole nation come together for something good. Countries come together when they're bombed. When do people ever come together for something positive?"

Chris Togneri is preparing this summer's seventh annual edition of the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide.

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