Did you know that the beautiful game of football was not the most popular sport in Slovakia? I had no idea. Until I read this quote from horror-haired Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik today:
"We are pleased that the people of Slovakia are so interested in our progress at the World Cup. Therefore I am personally very pleased to deal with signatures and pose for pictures and movies. It's for their memories. Perhaps such events to help popularise football in our country even more is just what our sport needs."
Call me ignorant (people do it all the time) but that came as a shock. After a bit of internet searching and a slight rediscovery of common sense I found that Slovakia's #1 sport is... ice hockey. Or to describe it another way: Six-a-side soccer, on ice, with sticks, at a faster pace, and with players legally allowed to fight each other. Which actually makes it sound way better than regular soccer. Maybe I'll stop reading Dirty Tackle and go read Puck Daddy instead.
Part of the reason hockey is so popular in Slovakia is that the Slovakian national team is pretty good at it. Much better than the Slovakian football team is at football. Like the football team, the Slovakian puck-slapping team was only formed in the mid-1990s following the break up of Czechoslovakia, but has already collected the full set of gold, silver and bronze medals at the Ice Hockey World Championships. Everyone loves a winner, right?
By contrast, this is the Slovakia football team's first trip to the World Cup as an independent nation. Now all they have to do is play really well, win the tournament, and football can establish itself as Slovakia's #1 sport. OK, that's not going to happen. Plus, Slovakia is hosting the Ice Hockey World Championship for the first time in 2011, which will only increase its popularity. But getting out of Group F (opponents: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand) would grab plenty of attention back in Bratislava and is within the realms of possibility for Slovakia at World Cup 2010, especially if Marek Hamsik is on his game. Here are a few highlights of Hamsik and his hair in action for Italian club team Napoli: