It was a moment of pure beauty. As Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson awarded Slovakia a corner kick, the ball was quickly played out to Marek Hamšík. He took the ball towards the touchline before turning back in. After getting the ball over on his right foot, Hamšík curled the ball into the top right corner in off the post with the sweetest of finishes. The Slovakian corner of the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille erupted with joy as they celebrated the best goal of the tournament so far, scored by the most superior player on the pitch.
With the retractable roof at the Stade Pierre Mauroy closed due to the dark clouds that were gathering as fans made their way into the 50,000 seater stadium, the atmosphere inside the ground resembled that of a Champions League game. It was a fitting scene for Hamšík, who ran the show for Slovakia.
His pass to set up Vladimír Weiss for Slovakia’s opener was as impeccable as Weiss’ subsequent turn and finish. Throughout the second half, Hamšík ran tirelessly, tracking back to cover every part of the pitch. After Slovakia had fended off Russia’s attempt at a late comeback, he was named man of the match.
By the time Russia and Slovakia walked onto the pitch at the stadium named after Pierre Mauroy, the late French Prime Minister and former Mayor of Lille, six of the nine games of Matchday 1 that had seen a winner had been decided by the odd goal. It’s a testament to why managers of international sides face a unique challenge when putting together a squad for a tournament like the Euros, and why they are wise to include players with the individual quality to win you a game, either through open play or set pieces.
That’s why Dmitri Payet has been the talk of the Euros so far. It’s also why Slovakian fans hold the man who will make his 90th international appearance against England in high regard.
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Despite growing up in Banská Bystrica, a city located on the Hron River in the heart of Slovakia, which was then a part of Czechoslovakia, Hamšík never played for Dukla Banská Bystrica, the biggest team in an area surrounded by mountain chains. Instead, he played for Jupie Podlavice, a small youth team.
However, Slovan Bratislava, the team in Slovakia with both the most league and cup titles, quickly spotted his talent. A club with a proud history when it comes to developing players, Slovan beat Barcelona in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in the Swiss city of Basel in 1969 to become the first – and to this day the only – club in Slovakia as well as former Czechoslovakia to win one of the European cup tournaments.
When Czechoslovakia won the Euros in 1976, seven Slovan Bratislava players were part of the winning squad. Six of those players started the final against West Germany, which Antonín Panenka so famously decided with his now legendary penalty.
Hamšík’s stint at Slovan Bratislava would be as short as his love affair to come with Italy would be long. In 2004, the year the midfielder who had already begun turning quite a few heads turned 17, Hamšík broke into the first team at Slovan Bratislava. He went on to make six appearances and score one goal before Brescia came calling.
The Serie A side had to pay €500,000 to price Hamšík away from Slovakia. The struggling side handed Hamšík his Serie A debut in a 3-1 away defeat to Chievo Verona on 20 March 2005. The introduction of Hamšík wasn’t enough to prevent Brescia from finishing 19th in Serie A, and they were subsequently relegated to Serie B. It was a blessing in disguise for Hamšík.
In August 2004, Napoli were declared bankrupt. The eccentric film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, who by know is a well-known name in European football, came to the rescue, but Napoli were still relegated to Serie C1 by the Italian Football Federation. In the same season as Brescia were relegated to Serie B, Napoli missed out on promotion to Serie B after losing 2-1 in the play-offs to Avellino, a city located just 50 minutes east of Naples. The following year Napoli finished first in Serie C1, and they were promoted to Serie B.
By then, Hamšík had established himself as an integral part of Brescia’s starting 11. In 2005-06, he played 24 games in Serie B as Brescia finished 10th. In 2006-07, as both Brescia and Napoli played in Serie B, he scored 10 goals in 40 games. While Hamšík’s side finished sixth in the table, Napoli finished second, behind Juventus, who had been relegated to Serie B following the Calciopoli scandal.
Napoli were promoted to Serie A, but they had seen more than enough of Hamšík’s qualities to want him to come along on their journey back to Italy’s top division. They parted with €5.5 million to make it happen.
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2007 was a big year for Marek Hamšík. Not only did he return to the Serie A when he signed a five-year contract with Napoli in the end of June; by the time the midfielder returned to the biggest stage in Italy, he had made his debut for Slovakia, having already represented his country in the UEFA European Under-17 Championships qualifiers and the UEFA European Under-19 Championships, as well as playing for Slovakia’s under-21s.
His senior debut against Poland in February ended in a 2-2 draw. A few months later, he played his second game in a 2-1-loss to Germany in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.
Hamšík made his mark on his Napoli debut, setting up the opening goal and scoring the second himself as Napoli won 4-0 against Cesena in the first round of the Coppa Italia. At the time of signing with Napoli, club owner De Laurentiis had described him as a player to watch closely in the future. While some of De Laurentiis’ many statements should be taken with a pinch of salt, he would turn out to be right about Hamšík.
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Hamšík has demonstrated on a number of occasions that he’s in Europe’s elite band of midfielders
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In 2007, he was runner-up to Martin Škrtel as the centre-back was named Slovak Footballer of the Year, but Hamšík won the Peter Dubovský Trophy, given to the best young Slovak footballer. The 20-year-old finished the 2007-08 season as Napoli’s top scorer with nine goals.
He added two more goals to his tally in 2008-09, finishing the season as Napoli’s top scorer for the second year running. He was also voted the best young Slovak Footballer of the Year yet again, and finished runner-up as best Slovak Footballer of the Year. As if Hamšík’s exploit in Italy weren’t enough to make him popular, in Slovakia the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign would ensure his status as one of Slovakia’s finest.
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Slovakia’s World Cup qualifying campaign began against Northern Ireland at home in the capital Bratislava. The hosts’ two biggest stars scored a goal each to get Slovakia off to a winning start. A loss away to Slovenia put a dampener on the Slovakian’s mood, but they responded in the best way possible, winning four consecutive games.
A draw, a win and a loss in the following games meant Slovakia had to beat Poland away to qualify for their first ever World Cup. With their closest rivals Slovenia up against minnows San Marino, little help could be expected, and Slovakia didn’t receive any. As it turned out, they didn’t need any either. A Seweryn Gancarczyk own goal was enough to secure a historic win, taking Marek Hamšík and his team-mates to the World Cup in South Africa.
Slovakia’s draw against New Zealand and subsequent loss to Paraguay meant they faced an immense task ahead of their final game; Italy, the reigning world champions, who were in dire need of a win after drawing against New Zealand and Paraguay.
Róbert Vittek opened the scoring halfway into the first half. When the tall forward scored his second of the afternoon a quarter of an hour from full time, Slovakia appeared to be going through to the first knockout stage. Then followed a frantic ending.
Antonio Di Natale cut Slovakia’s lead in half, before substitute Kamil Kopúnek restored their two-goal cushion. A Fabio Quagliarella goal in added time reduced the deficit one more time, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Slovakia from advancing to the first knockout round, where they lost to the Netherlands. Italy travelled home in shame after the group stage.
Despite his contribution to sending Italy home from the World Cup, Hamšík’s popularity among the Napoli fans never dwindled. In nine seasons at the San Paolo, the energetic midfielder has won the Coppa Italia twice, in 2012 and 2014. In 2014, Napoli also beat Juventus on penalties to win the Supercoppa Italiana.
Hamšík, often compared to Pavel Nedvěd, the former Czech midfielder who is Hamšík’s footballing icon, is best when he is deployed in one of the offensive positions in midfield. Besides the fact that he is a huge goal threat, which his five goals in the Euro 2016 qualifying proved, Hamšík’s biggest strength is his tactical versatility.
At the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Hamšík adapted to the game. He featured as a second striker when Slovakia were trying to put the game to bed early in the second half, and as close to a defensive midfielder as you’ll ever see him when Russia where chasing an equaliser after Denis Glushakov’s goal 10 minutes from time.
Slovakia coach Jan Kozak praised Hamšík’s performance, claiming, “Napoli has become too small. He deserves a bigger club for his performances,” but the 28-year-old himself has said that he is keen to see through a 10th season at the San Paolo.
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In 1989-90, a rather well known footballer named Diego Armando Maradona led Napoli to their second Serie A title, three years after they won their first, netting 16 times on the way. Many excellent players have since graced the pitch at the Stadio San Paolo, but the 1990 title remains Napoli’s final one.
In recent years, many of Napoli’s finest talents have excelled and then been sold on to cash rich clubs, with Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi two prime examples of players who have blossomed in the city of Naples.
But no matter how many players leave the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli always seem to get by. This season Gonzalo Higuaín scored 36 goals to break Gunnar Nordahl’s 66-year-old Serie A record. The 28-year-old, signed from Real Madrid in the summer of 2013, is the ninth Argentine to win the Capocannoniere.
The club’s everlasting ability to reshape its squad should provide Hamšík, the constant piece in an ever-changing Napoli side, with the chance to have another go at the only Italian trophy that is missing from his cabinet. Juventus aren’t unbeatable, although their winning streak last season might suggest so.
Long before Hamšík will try to replicate Maradona, he will attempt to stop England from finishing top of their group in the Euros for a second consecutive time. Slovakia’s 2-1 win over Spain proved that Slovakia, on their day, are capable of beating any side. If it shouldn’t be enough to worry England manager Roy Hodgson, it should be enough to put him on high alert.
Hodgson’s substitutions against Wales won England the game, but the England manager also received criticism for picking the wrong team in the first place. Against a player of such tactical versatility as Hamšík, Hodgson can’t afford to make the same mistake. That could end up costing England, and increasing Hamšík’s popularity. If there is one man who can shoot Slovakia to the Round of 16, it’s the Napoli powerhouse.
By Aleksander Losnegård. Follow @AleksanderL16