Slovakia will be making their football World Cup debut as an independent nation at South Africa 2010. And the upstarts know they are in a fight for second place in their group — with chances of increasing the popularity of the sport.

Vladimir Weiss’s outsiders were drawn into Group F with reigning world champions Italy as well as Paraguay and New Zealand. And the Slovaks believe they will be challenging the latter two for the second Round of 16 berth.

“I’d think first place is already taken. I’m pretty certain the world champions can cope with this group. But we’re contenders for second place. That would be a huge success for Slovakia,” striker Stanislav Sestak told FIFA.com recently.

Slovakia may be making their first appearance in the finals, but their rise to this point has been steady and their spot in South Africa without a doubt deserved.

They finished fourth in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup and third for Korea/Japan 2002. In 2006 qualifying, Slovakia finished runners-up in their group but were beaten by Spain in the play-offs.

But Weiss had his men ready in the 2010 qualification campaign, where they took top honours in Group 3, finishing ahead of second placed Slovenia. Third placed was the Czech Republic, who came into the qualification as a darkhorse World Cup favourite after playing at Germany 2006 and each Euro tournament between 1996 and 2008.

Now the nation of 5.5 million is looking forward to upsetting the odds in South Africa.

A strong showing in Africa could give football an increase in popularity in Slovakia, where ice hockey rules.

“We’re obviously hoping it’ll give us a real boost. Ice hockey has been easily our number one sport up to now. Taking part at the World Cup, and hopefully giving a decent account of ourselves, could well close the gap,” added Sestak.

The man behind Slovakia’s successful run to the World Cup has been Weiss, 45, who played at the 1990 World Cup in Italy with Czechoslovakia and later also won caps for Slovakia.

After taking over from Jan Kocian in the summer of 2008, Weiss has sought to blend youth with experience and has a number of professionals with current or previous experience in the German and English leagues in particular.

Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel and Marek Cech of West Bromwich Albion and the coach’s own son — Vladimir Weiss at Manchester City — are among the English contingent.

The Germany-based players in the provisional squad include the experienced midfielder Miroslav Kahan (Mainz), defender Peter Pekarik (Wolfsburg), Sestak (Bochum) who can be used in an attacking midfield role, Erik Jendrisek, who has just agreed a switch from Kaiserslautern to Schalke 04.

Napoli’s Marek Hamsik is at nearly 23 meanwhile already proving to be a vital player in midfield with outstanding performances which have earned him both the captaincy and the admiration of some of Europe’s major clubs.

Striker Robert Vittek, another player bringing experience to the squad after spending five years at Nuremberg before joining Lille last year, says the players are hungry for success.

“Our greatest strength is our collective approach... Obviously, we have a number of skilled young individuals too,” he told the FIFA website recently.

The coach: Slovakia’s success in qualifying for the World Cup followed the appointment as coach of Vladimir Weiss in July 2008. The 45-year-old — whose son Vladimir is a member of the playing squad and whose father Vladimir played for Czechoslovakia — won 19 caps for Czechoslovakia, with whom he played at the 1990 World Cup, and 12 for Slovakia.

He coached Artmedia Bratislava with whom he reached the group stage of the Champions League in the 2005/06 season, Russian club Saturn Ramenskoye and again Artmedia before taking on the national team post.

The star: Chelsea, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Juventus are among the clubs reportedly keen on signing 22-year-old Marek Hamsik who has the quality to shine as one of the emerging stars at the World Cup next year.

After being voted young player of the year in Italy in 2008, Hamsik has again been in sparkling form for Serie A side Napoli this season and his role in attacking midfield has been one of the factors behind Slovakia’s successful qualifying campaign.

Hamsik played for various junior national teams before making his debut in the national team on February 7, 2007 against Poland and has since gone on to make close to 30 appearances and take on the responsibility of captain.

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