JOHANNESBURG: Robert Vittek and his Slovakian team were in last place in the group and had to get past defending champion Italy to reach the second round of the World Cup, so calling them longshots was overstating their chances of progressing.
Two goals from Vittek stunned the Italians at Ellis Park and helped Slovakia to a victory yesterday that turned the soccer world upside down. The Italians were eliminated, finishing last in the group, and Slovakia - 17 years after splitting from Czechoslovakia - progressed to the round of 16 for the first time in its own right.
"We came here as newcomers and outsiders," Vittek said. "But we have already surprised once and we want to do it again.
"We couldn't have dreamed about this ... we showed everybody we are capable of achieving this."
What surprised the players was just how comfortable it was against Italy.
The only threat from the four-time world champions came in the last 15 minutes, by which time Vittek had given the Slovaks a two-goal cushion.
Even the late signs of Italian potency were quickly repelled by solid defending. Kamil Kopunek added a third for Slovakia after Antonio Di Natale pulled one back for Italy. The Slovaks clung on, despite Fabio Quagliarella's second goal for the holders.
"Of course we didn't expect such domination - maybe I shouldn't say domination - but we had the game under our control," said Vittek.
"We played better and we played with our hearts. That decided the match."
Pessimism, though, had been predominant entering the last Group F match.
Slovakia had one point after a draw against New Zealand and a loss to Paraguay, while coach Vladimir Weiss had been forced to apologise for directing an expletive-laced outburst at his media critics.
"Before the match we were under great pressure," Weiss acknowledged. The coach had a simple message for supporters back home: "Enjoy football - let's celebrate. This is a present to all our fans."