RUSTENBURG, South Africa – Slovakia and New Zealand, two World Cup outsiders, are keen to show they won’t be easy prey in South Africa when they meet in their Group F opener on Tuesday.
Slovakia is in its first international tournament as an independent nation since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
New Zealand, meanwhile, is returning to the World Cup stage for the first time since its debut appearance in 1982.
But New Zealand captain and central defender Ryan Nelsen, who plays for Blackburn in the English Premier League, insists his country’s football has grown in stature since then. Five others in the squad also play in England, adding experience they hope can lift their team to another level.
“We are not wet behind the ears,” Nelsen said. “The guys are confident, we’ve got strikers who are very good and play in good leagues, the defenders as well, and the same for the midfielders.”
Slovakia, too, can point to an impressive record in qualifying, when it upset group favourites Czech Republic and Poland, as evidence of its chances of competing well in South Africa.
“We’re going to play good football and to fight for a place in the second round,” Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss said after a recent 3-0 win over Costa Rica in a warmup game.
Even so, the Slovaks and Kiwis can’t match the pedigree of their Group F adversaries. They are up against defending World Cup champion Italy and Paraguay, which is playing at its eighth World Cup. Only two countries advance to the next round.
Slovakia is without 33-year-old midfielder Miroslav Karhan, its most experienced player, who was ruled out with an Achilles tendon injury.
Strikers Filip Holosko and Robert Vittek are also regaining match fitness after injuries. That means 23-year-old Sparta Prague midfielder Juraj Kucka, who didn’t play in World Cup qualifying but scored in Slovakia’s 1-1 draw against Cameroon last month, may feature at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
Liverpool centre back Martin Skrtel has returned to normal training after breaking his foot in February, and captain Marek Hamsik of Napoli is back from a muscle injury.
Manchester City midfielder Vladimir Weiss, the son of the coach, said the performance against Costa Rica had encouraged Slovakia.
“We will obviously try to get all three points” against the All Whites, he said. “When we play we will build on our work against Costa Rica.”
New Zealand, ranked 78th in the world and viewed as the weakest team in the group, profited from Australia’s switch to the Asian Confederation following the 2006 World Cup. It easily won its regional qualifying tournament, featuring mostly small Pacific island nations, and then beat Bahrain — the fifth-place team in Asian qualifying — to reach South Africa.
The challenge now is to improve on its showing 28 years ago when it lost all three group games.
But defender Nelsen reckons the team’s 1-0 win over world No. 15 Serbia in a friendly at Austria last month showed it can now stand up to the bigger countries.
“I think this team is a wee bit different from most New Zealand teams,” he said. “We have got a lot of experience now among the squad and things don’t daunt you as much as they once did.”
Shane Smeltz, who scored the only goal in the friendly against Serbia and was the top scorer last season in the Australian domestic A-League, and Middlesborough striker Chris Killen pose a threat for the Slovakia defence.
Coach Ricki Herbert, a defender in New Zealand’s 1982 World Cup squad in Spain, is likely to put veteran defender Ivan Vicelich in midfield as Tim Brown recovers from a fractured shoulder that could keep him out of the tournament.