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Triumphant Slovaks celebrate World Cup debut

15 October 2009 14:20

BRATISLAVA (AFP) - Slovakia woke to a jubilant morning on Thursday, a day after its footballers stunned rivals in the qualifying Group Three to clinch a World Cup debut in South Africa next year.

"Boys, We Love You," read a front-page headline on the Plus jeden den tabloid, next to a picture of the Slovak team celebrating in a snowstorm that boosted their defence in their 1-0 away victory over Poland on Wednesday.

The Slovaks, led by 22-year-old Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik, capitalised on an early own goal to win the game that triggered an unprecedented party in the nation of five million people.

"All in all, we made only one mistake in this campaign -- at home with Slovenia," said coach Vladimir Weiss, pointing to last Saturday's game that put off Slovak celebrations as the guests won 2-0 in Bratislava

"So we converted the second matchpoint," added Weiss, who took the team over in mid-2008 to steer it through the campaign.

"A Dream Come True," wrote the Pravda daily, while the Sport newspaper splashed a headline saying "We're Going To Africa!" over its front page on Thursday.

"I feel terrible joy, it's hard to describe. We are incredibly happy," Hamsik told reporters at the Bratislava airport around 4:00 am (2:00 GMT) on Thursday amid popping champagne corks.

"We have made history," he said.

Slovakia won the group with 22 points, ahead of Slovenia on 20 and the Czech Republic, the group's odds-on favourite and Slovakia's arch-rival, with 16.

The small Central European country has come a long way since the former communist Czechoslovak federation split amicably into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The Czechs won the status of the succession state after the split, and while they reaped the benefits in the most popular sports -- football and ice-hockey -- their smaller partner had to go the hard way as an unseeded struggler.

The Czechs played at the 2006 World Cup and all Euro tournaments between 1996 and 2008, while Slovakia's biggest previous hope of qualifying came to a quick end with a defeat by Spain in the 2006 World Cup playoffs.

But the balance started to tip in Slovakia's favour as they conquered Prague in the spring, beating the Czechs 2-1 in a key game on their way to South Africa.

The team built around Hamsik, Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, Bochum striker Stanislav Sestak and Manchester City midfielder Vladimir Weiss -- the coach's son and Slovakia's teenage sensation -- will not however be among the favourites in South Africa.

Bookies William Hill set Slovakia's odds to win the tournament at 150/1.

But the Slovaks have strengths such as rock-solid Legia Warsaw goalkeeper and a team spirit that off-set a lack of experience.

"We played the entire qualification like a great team," said Sestak.

"Perhaps there were many who didn't believe us, but we made it. The players gave it all they had, and we were also lucky," said Weiss.

"I'm proud of the boys. This team has its quality and future, and that's what matters."

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