Slovaks head home with bonuses in bag

DURBAN - Slovakia had already hit the jackpot by qualifying for their first World Cup and now go home with the bonuses of knocking out the holders, reaching the last 16 and building up experience for next time round.

Coach Vladimir Weiss has nurtured a group of players who work well as a team, have pace on the wings and a cutting edge up front. They showed it best last week in the 3-2 win over Italy and by no means embarrassed themselves in Monday's 2-1 defeat by Netherlands.

"It was a good result just to get here, anything else was a bonus," midfielder Vladimir Weiss, son of the coach, told reporters. "We hope we can come back to many World Cups in the future."

In their first Group F game against New Zealand they learnt a painful lesson when they conceded an equaliser in the last minute of added time, while in the next match against Paraguay they were simply outclassed and stunted in attack.

They fixed the mistakes from both matches and pulled together to achieve what had looked impossible when they were sitting bottom of the table - a stylish victory over Italy and a place in the knockout round.

They tried the same approach against Netherlands but were torn apart by winger Arjen Robben, who coach Weiss called a "genius", and were punished for wasting chances.

"If we lost, I think it was because of lack of experience," midfielder Miroslav Stoch told reporters.

"This is our first time in the World Cup. We beat Italy, we were heroes. It was fantastic, I hope next time it will be better."

Having tasted life on the big stage, the players have an appetite for more and with many in their early or mid twenties, the backbone is there for a good team for several more years.

"Our players showed heart and courage and good football," said the proud coach.

Their exploits have won them many fans at home, where ice hockey is the number one sport, and players have often said they have now breathed new life into the sport in Slovakia.

"We have not disappointed fans at all," said captain Marek Hamsik, who along with defender Martin Skrtel were the only established names in the Slovakia side before the tournament.

They have now showcased the goalscoring talents of Robert Vittek and the speed of Stoch and they lasted longer than the likes of France and Italy in South Africa.

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