From Euro 1976 to Marek Hamsik: Slovakia’s football heritage is to be respected
Slovakia provided eight of Czechoslovakia’s Euro ‘76 heroes but are yet to beat Ireland
Ireland meet Slovakia in Bratislava on Thursday evening. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
When the European Championships began 60 years ago the organisers faced one early problem. Seventeen countries entered, a mathematically challenging number for what was then a straight knockout tournament.
The solution was to hold a Preliminary Round consisting of a single tie. On the 5th April, 1959 nearly 40,000 people crammed into Dalymount Park to watch the Republic of Ireland beat Czechoslovakia 2-0 in the first leg of the inaugural European Nations’ Cup’s (as the competition was then known) only preliminary round tie. Sadly a little over a month later Ireland lost the second leg 4-0 and became the only country to fall at the very first hurdle.
Six decades later much has changed. Czechoslovakia no longer exists and while cheques continue to create problems for the FAI, only Slovakia need worry them now. On the footballing side the greatest reform is the fact that it exceptionally hard for Ireland to get knocked out of the European Championships however hard they try. The playoffs are a reward for our performances in the inaugural Nations League in which Ireland finished bottom of their group and failed to win a single match. This contradiction might explain why Jurgen Klopp calls the Nations League “the most senseless competition in the world.”
The Republic of Ireland have played in more European Championship playoffs than any other country and are getting better at them having won the last two. However, Slovakia are dangerous opponents being perhaps the most underrated country in European football, as their history is usually only traced back to 1994 when they began competing as an independent country. But Slovakia competed very successfully as part of Czechoslovakia until 1990, reaching the World Cup final in both 1934 and 1962.
Somewhat less prestigiously Czechoslovakia also finished as runners-up in the 1986 Icelandic Triangular Tournament, beaten 2-1 in the final by the Republic of Ireland who won their first international trophy. However, the greatest achievement of Czechoslovakia remains winning the 1976 European Championships with eight of the side who defeated West Germany in the final (including the captain and both goal scorers) being Slovakian. Post-independence Slovakia have played in two major tournaments, reaching the last-16 of both the 2016 Euros and the 2010 World Cup in which they beat Italy 3-2 to eliminate the reigning world champions.
Two men have dominated the recent history of Slovakian football, with every Footballer of the Year award between 2007 and 2018 being awarded to either Marek Hamsik (eight wins) or Martin Skrtel (four wins). Less happily Skrtel also lies second in the list of all time Premier League scorers of own goals with seven, leaving the former Liverpool defender three behind the Republic of Ireland’s Richard Dunne (who remains the only player to put the ball in his own net 10 times).
Even at 33, Hamsik remains Slovakia’s key playmaker being their captain, most capped player ever (with 120 caps) and record goalscorer (on 25 goals). Now playing for the Dalian Pro club in China, Hamsik previously spent a glorious 11 years at Napoli where he enjoyed the sweet smell of success so often that he eventually launched his own signature perfume. Sadly the ‘Hamsik Napoli’ cologne did not perform well with sales not being helped when Hamsik admitted with admirable frankness “I actually don’t know how it smells”.
The greatest name in Slovakian footballing history remains Vladimir Weiss, thanks to three generations of one family whose extraordinary footballing ability lies in inverse proportion to their creativity in naming male offspring. The first Vladimir Weiss won a silver medal for Czechoslovakia at the 1964 Olympics. His son (also Vladimir) played for Czechoslovakia at the 1990 World Cup finals later winning 12 caps for Slovakia, scoring their first ever post-independence goal.
This second Vladimir Weiss went on to manage Slovakia at the 2010 World Cup where he included his own son (inevitably named Vladimir) and managed the Georgia national team that played Ireland during the Euro 2020 qualifiers. The third Vladimir Weiss lists Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers and Glasgow Rangers among the nine clubs in seven different countries that he has played for and in 2016 became the first person ever to score in the European Championship finals whilst playing for a non-European club (Al Gharafa in Qatar).
This third generation Vladimir Weiss is currently back home playing for Slovan Bratislava, the most famous club in the country, whose greatest moment was beating Barcelona 3-2 to win the 1969 European Cup Winners Cup. In recent years Slovan have been regular visitors to Ireland, knocking Dundalk out of last season’s Europa League on a 4-1 aggregate and UCD out of the same competition in 2015, winning 6-1 in total. The club’s European adventure ended prematurely this year when both their original squad and a replacement selection had a player diagnosed with Covid-19 upon arrival in the Faroe Islands.
In the new normal recording a positive result away in Europe is no longer good news so Slovan forfeited their tie against KÍ Klaksvik 3-0. Demoted to the Europa League Slovan immediately lost 4-3 on penalties to Finnish side KuPS in a tie reduced to a single leg making unwanted history by being knocked out of both major European club competitions having played just one match.
Slovakia have always been well represented in the Premier League, a tradition that continues today through goalkeepers Martin Dubravka (Newcastle United) and Marek Rodak (Fulham). However the only Slovakian to manage in England remains Dr Josef Venglos, who made history in 1990 when he took over at Aston Villa becoming the first man from outside Britain or Ireland to manage a top-flight club in England.
Sadly things went wrong from the very outset when Villa chairman Doug Ellis opened his introductory press conference by asking the assembled media “Do you know who this is?” Noting that Venglos had a PhD in Physical Education the unimpressed journalists immediately nicknamed him ‘Dr Who?’ Twelve miserable months later with Villa 17th in the table Venglos resigned following a local newspaper headline demanding simply “Dr Jo Must Go.”
Although Ireland remain unbeaten against Slovakia there is something about the country that exposes the madness always lurking just below the surface of Irish soccer. In 2007 after scoring in a 2-2 draw in Bratislava, Stephen Ireland sparked the ‘Granny Gate’ scandal that ended his international career aged just 21. In a generation the Republic of Ireland had gone from having players dig up a long dead grandmother to play for them to having a player burying two very much alive ones to avoid pulling on the green jersey.
On Ireland’s next trip in 2010 a late switch of match venue by the Slovakian FA led the FAI to fund the infamous free bar on the ‘Disco Train’ that transported hundreds of partying Irish supporters from Bratislava to Zilina, who subsequently hoisted then chief executive John Delaney shoulder-high. In sharp contrast in 2017 the Irish women’s team had to threaten to go on strike before a home game against Slovakia to avoid having to change in public toilets and share tracksuits.
With three Euro 2020 group games and a round of 16 tie scheduled to be held at the Aviva Stadium the prospect of the Republic of Ireland failing to secure an invite to a party they are co-hosting borders on the unthinkable. Even allowing for the high bar this week’s meeting with Slovakia could yet prove to be the most embarrassing of all.
- James McDermott is a UCD law lecturer and a fervent soccer supporter.