PART of being a young and small country is that your major sports achievements get dissected for what they say about the national psyche. Slovakia's qualifying for the football World Cup with an improbable away-from-home victory against Poland on October 14 was one of those moments.
The last time this country celebrated a sports triumph of equal calibre was in 2002, following Peter Bondra's late goal against Russia to win the World Hockey Championships. That victory was reported (by this paper at least) to represent the real birth of the modern Slovak nation as a confident, forward-looking country. OK, maybe we overdid the post-game fizz.
This one is different, although no less significant. Qualifying for the World Cup on the strength of so many fortunate breaks undermines the common belief that Slovak sports teams, and perhaps the country as a whole, have been cursed with unrelenting bad luck: that where others succeed with skill and good fortune, equally talented Slovakia always gets tripped up by prejudiced referees, an unfair schedule, rotten weather or bad bounces.
One victory, even one as undeserved as the 1-0 squeaker over Poland, will not change these attitudes, for they are deeply held. But it does remove the grounds for them, and that’s a good start.
Poland deserved to win the match. They controlled the play all game, they had at least half a dozen solid scoring chances, including an open net and a shot off the crossbar, and they were playing at home against a stressed Slovak side whose best players were sidelined because of yellow card suspensions (those referees again!). But instead of winning and sending Slovakia into the playoffs for a qualifying berth, where they likely would have lost, Poland handed their opponents an own-goal in the third minute, and then muffed every chance the Slovaks coughed up in return.
To put this in context, Slovakia's sports history since 1993 is replete with tough breaks. During this year’s football qualifiers a tying goal away against Slovenia was disallowed, while a late goal by the Czechs in Bratislava spoiled a victory.
Both cost the team points that would have made Wednesday’s game irrelevant. There was also the humiliating Slovak collapse at home to Slovenia on October 10 when even a tie would have wrapped things up. Bad luck all round, lads.
Or hark back to the 2005 World Cup qualifiers, when Slovakia advanced to the playoff round against Spain, and was whipped 5-1 in Madrid. Again, a biased referee allowed an offside goal to put Spain up 2-0, and then he ejected Coach Dušan Galus when he complained. Typical.
Nor is the conspiracy confined to football. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, Slovakia was required to play a preliminary set before the main round, during which the NHL refused to release the country’s professional hockey players to the national team. Slovakia lost to Germany and Austria and then tied lowly Latvia, finishing at the bottom of its group and out of the tournament before the Olympics even began.
The country was clearly the target of an international conspiracy to eliminate competition for more powerful countries like the US.
If this sense of victimisation were confined to sport, it would remain an amusing national quirk, this dark muttering after yet another debacle. But it affects the way many Slovaks see the world as well. Such as that Hungary has designs on a chunk of Slovak territory and is being abetted by a strong Hungarian lobby in Washington and Brussels. Or that US President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the central European missile shield plan amounts to an abandonment of Slovakia.
“I love these players,” said a weeping Slovak coach Vladimír Weiss after the country’s historic qualification for a World Cup. How unusual, that a major test of Slovak mettle should be accompanied by the best of luck and tears of joy. How odd that Slovakia’s luck should prove good while neighbours Poland, Hungary and (best of all) the Czechs look enviously on. It’s enough – or it should be – to make one think.