THE VICTORY of the Greek soccer team at the EURO 2004 shocked the continent. It is unlikely that the Slovak squad could prepare a similar surprise for its fans in the foreseeable future, as Slovak soccer is not in very good shape and little seems to indicate that it will get better.
Soccer has a massive base in Slovakia. The Slovak Football Association registers over 260,000 amateur players and over 160,000 players under 18 years of age, according to its website. In a country of some 5.4 million, that's almost 8 percent of the population. And those statistics only account for the number of active players.
Despite this popularity, professional Slovak footballers continue to struggle to achieve good results against foreign teams and are no more successful at attracting large audiences at home.
Slovakia now ranks 61st in the official world ranking of the International Federation of Football Associations, down 11 places since December 2003. The best result of the team in that global comparison came in May 1997, when it reached 17th place.
The national team stood little chance of qualifying for the European championship. It finished third in its qualifying group, behind England and Turkey. England, which qualified for the championships automatically, won the group with 20 points.
Second-placed Turkey, which lost to Latvia in the qualification play-offs and did not reach the main tournament in Portugal, had 19 points. Slovakia earned only 10.
The EURO 2004 qualification brought Slovakia much negative publicity after English fans were shot at in a Bratislava pub by a private guard. Moreover, a group of Slovak hooligans insulted English players with racist chanting.
Following the match, England's black players Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole were reported to have complained that the chanting was the worst racist abuse they had ever experienced.
Slovak clubs are no better than the national team. In the last season they, again, failed to produce any significant results in the international arena.
One notable exception was Matador Púchov, which shocked Europe with a 1:1 draw against FC Barcelona on home soil in the first round of the UEFA cup in October 2003. At the time, Púchov was the last team in the Slovak league.
However, even that success turned into international embarrassment after Barcelona crushed Púchov 8:0 in the closely watched second match of the first round.
Since Artmédia Petržalka also failed to get through the first round, Slovakia lost all representation in the UEFA cup for the 2003 - 2004 season. No Slovak team qualified for the Champions' League main competition.
Slovaks have gotten accustomed to the fact that the only Slovak you are likely to see on the football field during a top-level European match is a referee. Ľuboš Micheľ has extensive experience in refereeing games of the Champions' League, the UEFA Cup, and international events.
He was one of three Europeans blowing the whistle at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and refereed matches at the 2002 World Championships in Korea and Japan.
The 36-year-old was also the youngest referee at EURO 2004. Along with his Slovak colleagues Igor Šramka and Martin Balko, he refereed matches between Greece and Spain, France and Switzerland, and one of the quarterfinals - the Netherlands versus Sweden.
Mismanagement and financial problems brought doom to some of Slovakia's most prominent clubs. Slovan Bratislava, the 1969 winner of the Cup Winners' Cup, has long been the country's pride. Slovan won the Slovak league for three years straight, starting in 1994, and emerged victorious again in 1999.
In the previous season, the Bratislava team finished third. This year, the team finished last and the country's largest stadium will therefore be home to a second-division team in the upcoming season.
Sadder yet is the story of 1.FC Košice. The team won the Slovak league in 1997 and, after succeeding in two qualification rounds, made it into the Champions' league in the 1997 - 1998 season.
Košice ended up in a group with Manchester United, Juventus Turin, and Feyenoord Rotterdam. The team lost all six of its games, but offered Slovak fans the chance to see some of the world's greatest footballers in action.
Now, the team has sunk from the second to the third division.
The low number of spectators clearly illustrates that Slovaks are in no way pleased with the game played by the local teams.
In the recently concluded season, the total number of spectators that came to see the Slovak league fell under 600,000 for the first time in the history of independent Slovakia, according to statistics released by the daily Pravda.
Figures show that attendance for the season averaged 3,154 visitors per match, the second-worst result in the 11-year history of the league.
Slovak football has the potential to produce top players and teams. What it needs most now is international success, which would bring more people to stadiums and get more cash flowing into the coffers of both clubs and the national team.
With the qualification for the 2006 World Championships in Germany and a new season of European club tournaments just ahead, Slovak football now has the opportunity to take a step in the right direction.
By Lukáš Fila
12. Jul 2004 at 0:00