Ladislav Pecko's team have achieved something that many Slovak sides can only envy. Playing in front of full stadiums and competing toe-to-toe with Europe's best has helped the hosts catch the imagination of the watching public at the UEFA European Under-17 Championship.
Achieving positive results against top nations is not something the locals get to see often when supporting their country, so there has been an understandable buzz across the nation as Pecko's youngsters have made their way to the semi-finals. "Attracting people to the stadium, for me, is the biggest success of this beautiful dream we are living," said the coach.
Slovakia were far from favourites coming into the competition but have displayed a passion in the national shirt which fans love to see. "Maybe we do not have as many talents as bigger countries, but we have our Slovak heart that we have put into the games. The last-minute goal against Austria gave us a lot of confidence and the motivation to work even harder. The boys must be allowed to have fun as well, but when it is time to work, there are no excuses. Even Barcelona with [Lionel] Messi would not succeed without good team spirit."
It is not easy to come to a tournament, as hosts, having not played a competitive game all season. Not only that, Slovakia have lost more of their 16 friendlies this year than they have won, but they have blossomed in front of their own crowds. "The team has been together for two years now. We organised training camps for the boys to get to know their character. We wanted them to form a rock-solid footballing group, completely synchronised on and off the pitch."
As one of the top right-backs in Slovak league history, renowned for his pace, Pecko knows what he is talking about. He spent 15 years in the ŠK Slovan Bratislava side before leading the club to the title as coach in his first season in charge. "To win the title with Slovan in 2009 was a great achievement, especially for me, having spent most of my career with the club. We had a great team back then, who remind me of this U17 team. We played nice attacking football, a lot of people were coming to our games and the team spirit was the key to our success."
Despite working the players hard, there is reward for their endeavours. After topping Group A, the squad enjoyed a performance by Slovak rapper Rytmus. An evening with their mind off football may have been just what the players needed, but now they must refocus. "They enjoyed the concert, but it is time to look ahead now. We want to do well against Italy, especially as we expect many fans to come. Why not try to achieve more if you have the chance? This could be the chance of a lifetime for the boys."
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