When Slovakia claimed independence from the former Czechoslovakia 16 years ago, few imagined they could surpass their more illustrious neighbours on the football field. Their initial steps were tentative, highlighted by a 1-0 win over the UAE in Dubai in their first competitive game.
But they have come a long way since that encounter in February 1994, marking a memorable milestone on Wednesday by defeating Poland 1-0 and claiming their first appearance in the finals of a major tournament. As the Slovaks topped Group Three, the Czech Republic languished behind and will be notable absentees at the 2010 World Cup. Having played for Czechoslovakia in their march to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, the Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss was part of the country's past. In putting Slovakia among the world's elite, he has now played a major role in their future.
"Everybody made a contribution and we made the whole of Slovakia happy. This is a fantastic feeling," said Weiss, whose side are built on a resolute defence and the creativity and goal threat of the attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik. Ironically, their dream was fulfilled largely thanks to a player from another of their near neighbours. The Polish defender Seweryn Gancarczyk's third-minute own-goal in Chorzow was decisive: a sliced clearance past Jerzy Dudek - and the slice of luck Weiss needed.
He was indebted to his keeper Jan Mucha, who plays in Poland for Legia Warsaw, for solid stops and the bar for keeping out efforts from Mariusz Lewandowski. The outcome and prize was worth the worry and the wait. With snow falling, Weiss was soon walking in his own winter wonderland. He added: "We played well in these qualifiers, we were lucky against Poland, but we've also put a lot of heart into the game."
Slovenia finished runners-up in Group Three after beating San Marino 3-0 and will be tricky opponents in the play-offs. It was a nervous final Group Two game for Switzerland as they booked their place in the showpiece tournament for a ninth time after a goalless draw at home to Israel. Group Rivals Greece will have one last chance to qualify for South Africa through the two play-off games.
Portugal also confirmed their place in Monday's draw as Nani stepped out of the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Manchester United winger had found it difficult to replace his former teammate and compatriate at club level. But in the injury absence of the world's costliest player, Nani stepped up for his country, driving home the opener before Simao, Miguel Veloso and Edinho left Malta on the end of a 4-0 loss.
It meant Sweden's 4-1 win over Albania mattered little, apart from the fact it was the last game in charge for the coach Lars Lagerback. Slaven Bilic's future is also uncertain as Croatia failed to grab a play-off place. Ukraine's 6-0 success in Andorra gave them second spot in Group Six, behind England. Peter Crouch scored twice in England's 3-0 victory at home to Belarus, but it was an unconvincing performance considering Spain's impressive 5-2 thumping of a Bosnia-Herzegovina side who will also contend the play-offs, along with France, Russia and the Republic of Ireland.
John Terry, the England captain, admitted: "I think when you look at the likes of Spain and the top sides across the world, we have got maybe another 20 or 30 per cent to go." The same could be said of Italy and Germany. Alberto Gilardino's hat-trick gave Marcello Lippi's side a 3-2 comeback win against Cyprus while the Germans were similarly jeered despite finishing unbeaten in Group Four after a 1-1 draw with Finland.
Michael Ballack, the German captain, said: "We are all disappointed, but I expected a bit more tact from our own fans." Spain have no such worries after making it 10 wins out of 10 in qualifying. David Silva said: "Spanish football lives a sweet moment. We have a great ability to create chances no matter who we play. We have a high level and can go far." @Email:email@example.com