Europe’s Up And Coming — Slovakia

In one of the most precisely and beautifully constructed 90 minutes of soccer, Slovakia stunned the world in 2010. The World Cup debutants beat Italy 3–2 in the World Cup, advancing to the knockout round and eliminating the defending champions. It came out of nowhere. For those following the ‘Repre’ 4 years ago, it was an exhilarating, exhausting ride.

Forged on the back of players like Robert Vittek, Vladimir Weiss and goalkeeper Jan Mucha, the team’s performance, and the subsequent interest by bigger European clubs after the tournament, seemed to foreshadow a period of growth in the Slovakian game. But false starts are everywhere, and things work out until they don’t. Slovakia failed to qualify for the 2012 Euros and the 2014 World Cup, and the team has been dormant ever since.

So, last Thursday, when Slovakia shocked everyone for the second time this decade, beating Spain 2–1 on a dramatic, late goal, it felt like Italy all over again. The aging powerhouse against the plucky Slovaks. The late goal by the opponent, seemingly snuffing out any hope of an upset and signaling their certain victor. But then, against all logic, the ball in the back of the net for Slovakia, and the unbridled joy and emotion that comes with it. It wasn’t South Africa, but the win had as much meaning and weight for its people and fans. Maybe even more, with the sport nowhere near the upswing of 4 years ago.

Now, Vittek is retired and Weiss plays in the Qatari league. Miroslav Stoch, the winning goal-scorer last Thursday who was a valued member of Fenerbahce a few seasons ago, now plays in the United Arab Emirates. Only a handful, including Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel have stayed relevant in Europe.

But, that doesn’t matter at this moment. Because if the Italy game was one of those rare moments in sports, where the unthinkable unfolds on the biggest stage, and you’re swelled with hope and belief that sometimes a stupid little game can lift you up…then Slovakia’s win over Spain was even rarer. Because it happened again. And it happened when no one expected it. And in a way it was even more electric, because it was at home, and the odds were worse. That moment was a small, inconsequential encapsulation of everything we strive for in sports, and in life. To defy the odds, transcend logic, and touch greatness. And then touch it again.