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MALINOVO, Slovakia – It was so sad, the way it ended. On the football pitch, exhausted. Dreams crushed. They would not be champions, after all.

I’m not talking about Slovakia’s heroic football team, which succumbed to Holland on Monday, 2-1, four days after pulling the greatest upset of the 2010 World Cup.

I’m talking about the traumatic finish to my 8-year-old son’s football tournament on Sunday. Devastating.

A postcard-perfect afternoon, in this village outside Bratislava, we cheered from the sidelines of a sun-drenched field as our team of 7- and 8-year-olds squared off against three other teams.

When my kid started playing, he was as fluid with the ball as a newborn giraffe. I thought his true calling in football was as scorekeeper.

A year later, remarkably, he bounds after it gracefully. Like an antelope. Oh, and he’s the only one in eyeglasses, which miraculously survived the season intact. In the process, he was named most improved player.

During the tournament’s first 30-minute game, with our boys ahead and feeling giddy, their English coach understatedly advised: “Win this one … and the next two … and you’ll win the championship!”

They won the first, 3-0. “We are the champions!” they sang. Prematurely, I thought.

They then won the second, by an identical 3-0. We fathers were feeling pretty good, too. Since our kids attend an international school, we hail from all directions. One shouted encouragement to his son in Finnish; another, in German; a third, Japanese; a fourth, Danish; and a fifth, um, in Australian.

The opponents were mostly Slovak, with some ethnic Hungarians mixed in. One coach caught my attention, as he seemlessly barked commands to his squad in both languages. (more…)

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[The following appeared June 25 on The Mantle.]

 

BRATISLAVA – That’s what the Slovak commentator screamed from the TV.

Goodbye, Italy!

How about ‘dem Slovaks?! Our scrappy Central European friends today sent the reigning champion – mighty Italy – tumbling out of the World Cup, 3-2. Even I cheered in the pub today.

“After you, France … Want to share a taxi to the airport?”

Bratislava is celebrating tonight. Flags are fluttering. There’s chanting in the streets. Slovaks are greeting strangers with warmth. My wife and kids are congratulating them as well. Smiles everywhere.

All this reminds me of one plain truth: nothing compares to living in a small, almost-invisible country during a major sporting event, like the Olympics or World Cup.

Seeing how they come together to root for the national team really warms the heart – especially if you focus on the negative most of the time, as I tend to do. (Scroll down for countless examples!)

Living here, though, you connect. You develop relationships. You pull for the people, for the land. You want them to do well.

I’ve now been very, very fortunate to experience this in two countries. First Hungary, now Slovakia. (more…)

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[The Global Post has previewed all 32 teams set to play in the 2010 World Cup. This one is on Slovakia, while the one below is on Slovenia.]

Slovakia already sees the Cup as a success after beating out the Czech Republic, with a shot at the second round if they capitalize on a lucky draw.

By Mark Starr with Michael J. Jordan – GlobalPost Columnist

Slovakia supporters cheer during their team's World Cup 2010 qualifying match against Slovenia in Bratislava on Oct. 10, 2009. (Reuters)

Slovakia World Cup Soccer 2010

In his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush famously confused Slovenia and Slovakia. The mistake was said to reflect the candidate’s ignorance of foreign affairs. But unhappily for Slovakia, it is a remarkably common mistake, even in Europe.

Slovakia’s population has been left with a pessimistic mindset after decades of oppression. In the 20th century alone, the country went from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Czechoslovakia, to a separate German-controlled state during World II and back to Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Though Slovakia gained independence in 1993, it is still overshadowed by the Czech Republic. That was true in sports too — until Slovakia’s stunning triumph in the 2002 world hockey championship. In February it again surpassed the Czechs on the ice, reaching the Olympic semis where it almost upset host Canada.

Though Slovaks were part of a glorious Czechoslovakian soccer tradition — the Czechoslovak team reached the World Cup finals in both 1934 and 1962 — a Slovak soccer tradition has been slow to develop. The 2010 World Cup should provide a good launch and the youth of this team should keep it competitive in the ensuing years.

Slovakia World Cup History: First World Cup appearance for the 17-year-old nation, formed in a peaceful breakup with what is now Czech Republic.

(more…)

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[The Global Post has previewed all 32 teams set to play in the 2010 World Cup. This one is on Slovenia, while the one above is on Slovakia.]

The Slovenian team is positive in its own abilities and group placement, and in not repeating the embarrassment of the 2002 Cup.

By Mark Starr with Michael J. Jordan – GlobalPost Columnist

Slovenia's Bostjan Cesar and Robert Koren celebrate after defeating Russia in their World Cup qualifying match in Maribor, Slovenia on Nov. 18, 2009. (Reuters)

Slovenia World Cup 2010

Slovenia is the smallest nation — 7,800 square miles, about the size of New Jersey and just 2 million people — to have qualified for the 2010 World Cup. It emerged a nation from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1991, anxious to carve out its own identity and to command a seat at the table with its much bigger neighbors.

While Slovenia is known in the sporting world as an Alpine skiing power, it is hopeful that soccer and the World Cup will serve as its introduction to a greater, world-wide audience. That was also the hope in 2002, the first time Slovenia qualified for the World Cup. Instead, the showcase proved a national embarrassment.

In Slovenia’s first game its star player, after being substituted, threw a fit, confronting the coach with a stream of verbal abuse. He was booted, sent home and the team wound up losing all three games.

“Such an extraordinary chance to show yourself to the world, then to blow it in such a primitive way,” says Andrej Miljkovic, a Slovenian sportswriter. “People wanted to take the national jersey they bought for 50 Euros and shove it … somewhere. Anyone will tell you our main goal is the heroes come back as heroes — come back as a team — even if they lose.”

Slovenia World Cup History: Second cup appearance; in 2002 Slovenia lost all three games and was outscored 7-2. (more…)

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