Move over Juraj Jánošík, Slovakia has a new hero. His name is Seweryn Gancarczyk, and although he is Polish by birth, tonight he is the toast of the neighbours to the south after his own goal in the third minute of Slovakia's final qualifying game for World Cup 2010 decided this match - and this long campaign - in Slovakia's favour.
Next summer, Slovakia's footballers will be at the World Cup finals in South Africa for the first time as an independent nation. Victory against Poland tonight in the snow-lashed Stadion Śląski in Chorzow means that Slovak football fans can finally join the game's biggest jamboree.
Gancarczyk sliced Marek Hamsik's left-wing cross past his goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, in the opening stages of what turned out to be a fraught match in dreadful conditions in Poland. Snow covered the pitch from the outset and this was always likely to be a match in which the team that made the fewest mistakes prevailed.
After Gancarczyk gifted Slovakia the early lead, they must credit their own goalkeeper, Jan Mucha, whose handling was excellent throughout in the toughest conditions and who made three excellent saves to keep the visitors ahead.
Poland also rattled Mucha's crossbar, with the goalkeeper emphatically beaten by Mariusz Lewandowski's 30th minute howitzer. In fact, the first Mucha seemed to know about the drive from 25 metres was the avalanche of snow that fell from the crossbar and into his goal. But after a disappointing show against Slovenia in Bratislava on Saturday, when a draw would have been enough to secure qualification, Slovakia showed their mettle to keep their South African dream alive.
The manager Vladimir Weiss named only five players in tonight's starting line up from the 11 who started on Saturday. Now needing to win to avoid the uncertainties of the play-offs, Weiss deployed the fit-again Stanislav Sestak as the target man and restored the veteran Jan Kozak to a midfield that had been overrun in the weekend's defeat to Slovenia. Kozak in particular was in inspirational form as he held up the ball well in dangerous areas, allowing his younger colleagues to make space around him. It paid dividends as early as the third minute when Hamsik, who flitted in and out of the match, found enough space to bend a left-footed cross into the box that Gancarczyk lashed past his own keeper.
With their own hopes of qualification long extinguished, Poland were playing only for pride but still managed to cause several headaches for the Slovakia defence. As conditions deteriorated, Poland began to dominate the midfield battle and were able to apply ceaseless pressure onto the Slovakia back-line. On the stroke of half-time, Ireneusz Jelen might have scored when he blazed over from close-range after a mix up between Slovakia's Martin Petras and his goalkeeper, and after the break only last-gasp interventions from Zdeno Strba blocked further Poland attempts.
Slovakia's counter-attacking threat was held up in the snow, and their most potent creative forces Vladimir Weiss Jr, Hamsik and Sestak could not find a way through. Kozak found himself one-on-one but with 40 metres to make up late in the second half, and his surge forward was eventually halted before he could get a shot away.
Slovakia were forced to repel a sustained barrage of Poland attacks for the final 15 minutes, and hearts entered all Slovak mouths in the second minute of injury time, when Kornel Salata appeared to bring down the substitute Robert Lewandowski in the box. The referee waved away Poland's appeals and Slovakia were able to run down the clock to cling on to that precious one-goal lead.
The team's achievement can best be quantified by looking at the opposition they will now face in South Africa. Slovakia will now definitely line up alongside Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Holland, Brazil and the United States, while the likes of Portugal, France and Russia face a play-off. Diego Maradona's Argentina must beat Uruguay late tonight or else they will not qualify.
No one is under any illusion: Slovakia will be significant underdogs in South Africa next year. But this qualification, with a record of seven wins from 10 matches and 22 goals scored is already a spectacular achievement. The hype has only just begun.
Poland: 1-Dudek; 5-Rzezniczak, 4-Glowacki, 13-Bieniuk, 3-Gancarczyk; 16-Blaszczykowski, 18-Lewandowski, 6-Guerreiro (14-Peszko 61), 15-Obraniak; 11-Jelen (9-Lewandowski 69), 8-Brozek (17-Janczyk, 87).
Slovakia: 1-Mucha; 2-Petras, 3-Pekarik, 8-Strba, 5-Salata; 7-Weiss (15-Novak, 67), 17-Hamsik, 14-Kozak (6-Karhan 86), 10-Kopunek; 18-Jendrisek; 9-Sestak (13-Svento 75)
14. Oct 2009 at 23:59 | Howard Swains