First of all, a disclaimer : I didn’t watch Luxembourg v Slovakia. If it hadn’t been for the demands of a job which makes long midweek trips impossible, I would probably have enjoyed the novelty of being at the game in person, if only for the opportunity, to coin a groundhopper’s phrase, of ‘ticking off’ the Stade Josy Barthel.
And it wasn’t on TV in Slovakia because a new channel called Digi Sport has bought the rights to all the national team’s matches, despite having just 300,000 subscribers. This is a situation which raises questions about the still relatively new SFZ regime, headed by Ján Kováčík. When Kováčík was elected president of the association last autumn, one of his first public pronouncements was to the effect that all Slovaks should have easy access to live broadcasts of international games. He made initial good on that promise too, negotiating a deal whereby Digi Sport shared the rights to the Armenia and Ireland games with state broadcaster STV. There was no such deal for last night’s game. A cynic might speculate that Kováčík’s early energy has lessened somewhat or, perhaps, that brokering an agreement for the broadcasting of a friendly game with Luxembourg is a less eye-catching piece of work than doing the same for important qualifiers.
My own devotion to Slovakia’s cause extends as far as attending home games in person whenever I can and watching the others on TV. It stops short of scrabbling around looking for an internet feed of (probably) variable quality when there are other games easily available on channels such as Nova Sport or Sport 1. So it was Holland v Austria for me on Wednesday night and, as friendlies go, pretty good it was too.
This means, of course, that I cannot claim the right to dissect Slovakia’s performance in Luxembourg. In the lead-up to the game, I felt it was a good one to be playing. With successive Euro 2012 qualifiers against Andorra coming up, the team needed practice in overcoming supposedly weaker opponents intent, presumably, on blanket defence. The poor pitch in Luxembourg was also no bad thing as it would at least offer some preparation for the surface in Andorra, which has been described by Vladimir Weiss as ‘katastrofalný’. With that in mind, the coach intended to try out a physical style of play based on a 4-3-3 formation and plenty of long balls towards a muscular centre-forward. Even the tiny crowd could be seen as an integral part of the exercise. Some of the Slovak squad play their club football in front of large attendances and need to get used to the idea of playing an important game in the kind of low-key atmosphere they will experience in Andorra. In playing terms, Andorra might be minnows but their defeats are becoming narrower and there’s a sense that they might start picking up the odd point in qualifying sooner or later. Slovakia cannot afford for that to happen in either of the next two games and thus need to be well-prepared. On pretty much all counts, the Luxembourg game formed a large part of that preparation.
So much for the theory. Defeat in Luxembourg is an embarrassment in itself and will probably give rise to doubts about the capabilities of the Slovakia squad. Weiss says it’s hard to find words to describe his feelings about the performance. He also reiterates a point he’s made before ; that Slovakia simply cannot afford to have significant numbers of players not fit, out of form or not playing regularly for their clubs. And at least one of those three descriptions applies to several players, including a few in Wednesday’s squad. The coach is positive about players who have taken what he calls ‘steps forward’ in their club careers this winter, naming Juraj Kucka and Erik Jendrišek as examples. But you could equally argue that moving clubs, with all the upheaval it entails, might not be conducive to gearing yourself up for optimum performance in an unglamorous international friendly game. A similar point could be made about players, such as Marek Hamšík, who haven’t moved anywhere but continue to be the subjects of interest and speculation. Call me cynical but I can’t believe that, when rumours of a big-money transfer to Chelsea were being bandied about last week, Hamšík’s thoughts were exclusively of what awaited him in the Stade Josy Barthel.
In fairness, the Slovak camp are not offering excuses for the defeat. Debutant goalkeeper Marián Kello did say that, due to the fog, he couldn’t see beyond his own defenders but that is doubtless a simple statement of fact. Kello joins other players in also pointing out that the fog and the pitch were the same for both sides. Stanislav Šesták says that his team’s style of play failed to trouble Luxembourg and that the home side were skillful and dangerous on the counter. That makes Luxembourg sound a better team than they probably are but there is also a recognition in most of the after-match quotes from the Slovaks that anything less than victory against sides like Wednesday’s opponents and Andorra is a failure.
If there’s one definite positive about Wednesday night, it’s that the game was, after all, a friendly. One effect of the result might be that the team goes on to take the embarrassment out on Andorra. After all, good qualifying performances have followed poor friendly efforts before under Weiss. Also, when it’s really mattered (and, let’s be honest, it didn’t really matter on Wednesday) Slovakia have generally been efficient at swatting teams like Andorra aside. Finally, Group B still looks to be there for the taking. Neither of its other favourites, the prosaic Irish and inconsistent Russians, can be guaranteed to take maximum points from their own forthcoming games. Even if they do, the requisite six points against Andorra would give the Slovaks momentum going into the autumn. Given the gloom, both real and metaphorical, surrounding the Luxembourg game, that thought is worth holding on to.