Napoli midfielder is the vital cog in the Slovak machine
“I love these guys,” exclaimed the overjoyed Slovakia coach, Vladimir, after his side prevailed 1-0 in a Polish snowstorm to reach their first World Cup finals as an independent entity. And so he should. Weiss’ squad truly have delivered for him – and none more so than Napoli attacking midfielder Hamsik; he of the conspicuous ability, buck-teeth, vertical hair and multiple tattoos.
A vital cog in a Slovak machine which surpassed all expectations in topping a far-from-straightforward Group C – which also included the likes of Czech Republic, Poland, Northern Ireland and Slovenia – the 22-year-old not only contributed two vital goals in two vital fixtures (one in the home win over Northern Ireland, another, a penalty, to help his side hold the Czechs to a 2-2 draw in Bratislava) but he also caught the eye with his technical dexterity, drive on the left flank or through the middle, and perfectly timed breaks into the opposition danger zone.
Slovakia’s famous old stadium, the Tehelne Pole in Bratislava, may be so rundown these days that it needs to be redeveloped, but the same cannot be said of Hamsik, who has two good feet, high energy, good shooting power, intense competitiveness and a barely concealed swagger.
“There’s a little of Frank Lampard in the way Hamsik gets forward so effectively into goalscoring positions,” says former Czechoslovakia and Slovakia midfielder Lubo Moravcik.
“He’s a fighter and has proved that he can cut it in a slightly more defensive role in the middle of the park. But what Slovakia need more than anything else is someone to make the difference in the attacking-third and he’s the ideal man. Vladimir Weiss recognises this and gives him plenty of scope to concentrate on what he does best – to go forward.
“I think he’s crucial to our chances in South Africa. Although he’s still a youngster, he’s been in the national team for a long while [he made his debut against Poland at the age of 17 in February 2007] and knows what it’s all about. I expect him to rise to the occasion. For the past couple of years at Napoli he has played in front of massive crowds and usually done himself justice.
“He has an attitude I like. He’s very single-minded. As a teenager who had just broken into the Slovan Bratislava first team, he might have considered continuing his development there. But when Italian side Brescia came in for him, the kid didn’t hesitate. He had the belief that he’d make it in the Italian league and has been proved right.”
From the city of Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia, Hamsik certainly has come a long way since Brescia paid Slovan Bratislava £500,000 for him back in 2004. Three years of impressive work later, Napoli thought nothing of paying £5.5million to lure him south and now, solidly entrenched as a San Paolo headliner, he is thought to be worth at least three times as much. Not that his admirers at Juventus, Internazionale or in the Premier League are likely to be deterred.
Events this year may tempt him to move on. He was a victim of a carjacking in Naples and had the local police out for his blood when he claimed in an interview that traffic cops in the city turned a blind eye to his speeding.
“We’ll see what happens,” he declares enigmatically. “I love Napoli, the club, the city and its people.
“There’s more than enough to focus on this season. We have to improve Napoli’s league position and then it’s the World Cup. I’m proud to be part of a Slovak team which has made history. No one thought it possible for us to qualify and even now we are not receiving much recognition for our achievement. We totally deserved to win our group. Seven wins in 10 games, including a win in Prague, says it all. I don’t know about specific goals in South Africa but I can assure our fans that we aren’t going along just for the ride.”
Should Slovakia be involved in a penalty shoot-out next year, Hamsik will be in his element. At one particular Brescia training session he was on target with 56 consecutive spot-kicks.