Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Three Young Hopes of Slovakia - Epilogue - The Future is Bright

Germany ended Czechoslovakia's semifinal hopes at the 1990 World Cup after converting a controversial penalty in the quarter-finals. Czechoslovakia waved goodbye to one generation of players, such as Kocian, Hašek and Chovanec, but the team retained its quality - Skuhravý, Moravčík, Kubík and the young talent Dubovský came painfully close to qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, only to experience the bitter disappointment of 1990 for one last time. The final game of the qualifiers ended in a goalless draw, despite RCS ["Representation of Czechs and Slovaks" - Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 01/01/93; the game was played on 17/11/93] pressuring the 10-men Belgium for over an hour. The match was a sign of things to come - Slovakia had only two players in the starting XI [Moravčík & Dubovský]. The Czech Republic retained most of Czechoslovakia's football talent throughout the 1990s, and youngsters Šmicer, Nedvěd and Poborský [with his legendary lob against Portugal] shone brightly during the Euro 1996, whereas Slovakia failed to produce a player capable of suppplementing Dubovský's and Moravčík's brilliance.

Ľubomír Moravčík v. Paul Gascoigne

Mirage 2000
The tide seemingly turned in June 2000 - Slovakia's U21s beat Lampard's & Carragher's England 2:0 and, because of their previous win against Turkey [2:1] and 1:1 draw against Pirlo's and Gattuso's Italy, made it to the semifinal of the 2000 U21 Euro Championship and so qualified for the summer Olympics. The sense of excitement was tremendous and many felt that Slovakia was finally catching up with its "big brother", although the young Czechs finished second in the same U21 championship. Szilárd Németh and Peter Babnič formed a potent partnership upfront, Karol Kisel's technical skills stood out in the midfield just as the fighting spirit of captain Juraj Czinege's. Vratislav Greško, with his well-executed direct kicks [especially v. Turkey - nowhere to be found on YouTube], runs up and down the left wing and crosses, fared equally well, whereas Kamil Čontofalský conceded, on average, less than a goal a game, keeping a clean sheet against England. While many European clubs expressed their interest in the above mentioned players, many fans were already speaking of Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup as possible highlights of Slovakia's football in the noughties.

Vratislav Greško v. Carlos Puyol
[Slovakia U21 finished 4th at U21s Euro 2000 after losing to Spain 0:1]

These hopes, however, never materialized. Németh was sold to Steve McLaren's Middlesbrough [McLaren is currently in charge of Stoch's FC Twente], but did not to match his tally from Inter Bratislava [40 goals in 58 appearances] or national team [22 in 59]. He recorded 117 games [in four seasons] and 23 goals for Boro, but failed to establish himself as one of its major players [you can see some of his goals for Boro here]. After recovering from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism he continues his career in 2. Bundesliga's outfit Alemannia Aachen. Another group of players made it to Slovakia's senior team, but fared even worse than Németh. Greško was bought by Inter Milan, signed a four-year contract and played alongside the original Ronaldo. His career with Inter ended abruptly on 05/05/2002, in Inter's last game of the season. Lazio's Poborský scored the game-winning goal after Greško's deflection and Inter lost the scudetto in the very last game of the season to Juventus. The wrath of Inter's fans was great [and Greško is still well-remembered - one Italian blogger named the trophy for the worst own goal of the season after him, while a small group of fans is petitioning on Facebook for Greško to become Inter's president]. He played in Parma the following season, making just 5 appearances, and was loaned and later sold to Blackburn Rovers. His spell of bad luck continued - he scored an own goal in his first game for the Rovers and suffered cruciate ligament damage [aged 27], which ruled him out for one entire season. His career has never fully recovered and, following brief spells with 1. FC Nuremberg and Bayer Leverkusen, Greško has been a free agent since summer 2009.

Greško's fatal mistake cost Inter Milan the scudetto
[YouTube screencap]

Čontofalský was eventually transferred to Zenit St. Petersburg, but spent most of his time as the team's no. 2 keeper [partly due to the Russian league's quota system], playing only 45 games in nearly 6 years [although he had some decent games - see this fan video]. He became Slovakia's no.1 keeper, but proved to be a liability on a number of occasions and did not play a single game for Slovakia in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. He is currently with AEL Limassol. Captain Czinege and striker Babnič were the greatest disappointments - both ended up in below-average teams and have been largely forgotten - Czinege currently plays for the struggling MFK Petržalka, whereas Babnič for SV Haitzendorf, the runner-up of the local league of the Austrian Bundesland (federal state) Niederösterreich. Most of Slovakia's U21 heroes faded away once transferred abroad, unable to compete at the highest level and confined to their teams' benches.  Did these transfers come too late, or did their proverbial well of talent dried out? It was most definitely the combination of the two. The promise of June 2000 proved to be a mere mirage.

Šebo scores against Brazil.
2002-03 - Here We Go [Again]
While the stars of 2000 were shining less and less brightly, another promising generation emerged. Slovakia's U19s finished third at the 2002 European U19 Championship and qualified for the 2003 World Youth Championship. Young Slovakians scored 11 goals in the group stages, more than their Spanish [7], German [8] and English [6] counterparts. They beat the Czech Republic in a convincing manner [5:2], with Filip Šebo [3] coming second after the tournament's top scorer Fernando Torres [4]. The team reached the World Cup's knockout round a year later, narrowly losing to the overall winners Brazil [1:2] in the round of 16 [after extra time]. In many ways, history repeated itself yet again. Šebo had a Greško-esque spell with Paul Le Guen's Glasgow Rangers, which bought him for £1.85m from Austria Vienna. Just as Németh before him, Šebo failed to convert his goal-scoring tally from the Slovakian league [22 in 33 games in the 2004/05 season] and national team [5 in 8, although this includes a hat-trick from a friendly against Malta], but did so in a most unimpressive manner, netting only two goals from 24 appearances. He earned comparisons to Desperate Dan as well as distinctive "seeebbooo" chants, which ensued whenever he was substituted on or attempted a shot on goal. "Seeebbooo" chants remain popular in Scotland - according to a website dedicated to Celtic slang:
"Doing a "Sebo" is when a player performs a long-range shot at goal which can be ranked as outrageous, overly-optimistic or just plain daft, and in general the shot simply goes nowhere near the target. During matches after any player has done a "Sebo", chants of "Sebo, Sebo, Seeebbooo" ring around the stadium."
After a story of how Rangers were manipulated to sign Šebo appeared, he was sold to Ligue 1's Valenciennes, where he occupies a marginal position. Other players followed the 2000 trajectory - team captain Marián Kurty, just as U21s captain Juraj Czinege, has never made it, whereas goalkeeper Peter Kostoláni, who had a number of convincing performances at both Championships, has had a fate comparable to that of Peter Babnič, and after years in the wilderness resurfaced in Frenaros FC 2000 of Cypriot Second Division. Striker Juraj Halenár has failed to move beyond Slovakian league, despite scoring a hat-trick against Celtic Glasgow in the 2005/06 Champions League qualifying round tie and some good performances in the group stages. The 2002/03 generation was, however, not a complete failure. Filip Hološko has been likened to Thierry Henry [albeit by "News of the World", which diminishes the value of such a comparison significantly] and his career in Turkey has been rather successful - he scored 25 goals in 56 appearances for Manisaspor, and 18 in 51 for Besiktas - the one against Fenerbahce is particularly famous - Hološko took the ball from his own half, made its past five Fenerbahce players and slotted the ball in. Most Slovak fans remember him for a similar strike against Northern Ireland from September 2009. Although he broke his leg in a Champions League match in the autumn of 2009, he has fully recovered and extended his contract with Besiktas earlier on this month [until 2013 - earning €2m a season]. Sparta Prague's Igor Žofčák is also a contender for a World Cup place, whereas West Brom's left back/winger Marek Čech should be a certainty [watch his classy overhead kick for FC Porto - the video also shows more of his game - passes, crosses, dribbling, left foot, etc.]. Defensive midfielder Kamil Kopúnek is generally seen as a  replacement for the ageing Miroslav Karhan, and hence took part in the latest qualifiers. The 2002/03 generation was a step forward, despite several notable failures [namely Filip Šebo]  - 3-4 of these players play for Slovakia's senior side and their clubs on a regular basis and Hološko is one of Besiktas's most valued players - expect to see him and the rest in South Africa.

Hološko v. Barry

Break On Through [to the other side, yeah]
The current generation of young Slovakian players seems to be the most promising one yet. Marek Hamšík and Miroslav Stoch play key roles for SSC Napoli and FC Twente - Vladimír Weiss has yet to catch up with these two midfielders - the quality of his performances for Bolton Wanderers, where he is on loan from Manchester City, will be crucial. The pool of young talent from Slovakia is, however, far from exhausted. Milan Lalkovič, who turned 17 in December, plays for Chelsea's Youths as well as Reserves - just as Stoch before him. He can play anywhere in the front three [mostly on the right-hand side], has some decent skills, good crosses, great shot as well as sufficient speed. Lalkovič [his story is briefly summed up in this video] would be an ideal replacement for Weiss. Róbert Mak [18] is another promising midfielder - he left Slovan Bratislava [former club of Dubovský and Hamšík] at the age of 15 for Manchester City's football academy. He currently trains with the As, plays for Man City's Reserves and scores goals on a regular basis - last weekend against Liverpool's Bs, a month ago against Hull's Bs. He has already received offers from Championship and Bundesliga clubs and has indicated his readiness to leave Man City in order to gain match experience [in an interview for "Denník Šport"]. Goalkeeper Filip Mentel, also a graduate of Man City's Academy, has been tipped to replace Ján Mucha in Legia Warszawa - its goalkeeping coach Krzysztof Dowhan has a reputation for nurturing goalkeeping talent, such as Mucha [recently signed a pre-contract with Everton], Celtic's Artur Boruc and Arsenal's Lukasz Fabianski. FC Twente's striker Andrej Rendla is the youngest player ever to start in the Slovak football league [earned his debut for FK Dukla Banská Bystrica a day after his 16th birthday], played a major role in FC Twente win of the Dutch Youth Super Cup and had his first start in the Dutch Eredivisie at the age of 17. Although he suffered a knee ligament injury in January 2008 and was out for the entire year, he was substituted on in Twente's game against FC Groningen [last weekend] and hopes to get his career back on tracks.

Andrej Rendla

Another generation is following in Lalkovič & Co.'s footsteps. Jakub Vojtuš [16], an MŠK Žilina striker, was snapped up by Inter Milan earlier on this week for €550,000 [although the deal might be worth as much as €2m] - hopefully he will be more of a Hamšík than a Greško. There has been a considerable amount of hype surrounding his transfer, with Slovakian dailies quoting Italian media and calling young Vojtuš "the best player from Central and Eastern Europe born in 1993 ". In the meantime, Chelsea has expressed interest in yet another young Slovakian - Jakub Kosorín. He was a given in trial in November and with Man City and Man Utd also interested, the deal should reportedly be sealed in the summer, once Kosorín finishes his studies. The mill keeps spinning - according to, "striker Tomáš Malec of AS Trenčín [16, ±2m tall!] ... spent last week on trial with FC Genoa. He played a game for their U16 vs U17 and helped his team to win 6:3 with no less than 4 goals + 1 assist" and centre-back Patrik Banovič [18] of Spartak Trnava was recently on trial with Fulham. On the one hand, a place in a top European club's academy does not guarantee a young player's success - on the other hand, it makes him compete with the best players in his age category, often from all over the world, and does so from a very early age [15-16]. Consequently, graduates of foreign youth academies are by and large much more accomplished and experienced that their domestic counterparts - Hamšík, Stoch and Weiss are in a category of their own and cannot be compared with the previous generation of young Slovak players, not even the brightest "starts" of the 2000 and 2002/03 youth championships. Whether this trend is circumstantial [Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, hence making transfers of young players westwards much easier], related to the success of the "Three Young Hopes of Slovakia", or simply reflects the quality of Slovakian youngsters, is a completely different issue. The future seems bright - at least for now. All the necessary cogs are in motion. The likelihood of the final product being another Dubovský, Moravčík, Hamšík or Stoch, rather than yet another mirage, seems much higher than in the previous decade.
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