‘They told me he was too arrogant’: how Slovakia learned to love Hamsik

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Monday’s game between Slovakia and Poland should be a battle between two world-class players. Poland rely heavily on Robert Lewandowski; Slovakia are similarly dependent on Marek Hamsik, one of Serie A’s best performers over the past decade, who – despite spending last season not playing regularly in China and Sweden – remains as important for his country as ever.

That was painfully evident in March, when in his absence Slovakia drew with Cyprus and Malta in 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Although they then beat Russia, they are not the same without Hamsik, the country’s best player since independence in 1993. Hamsik holds Slovakia’s record for appearances (126) and goals (26) and has led his country to their third major tournament.

Related: ‘Ineffective striker’: Lewandowski’s struggles on the road to glory

At the 2010 World Cup Hamsik was captain at the age of 22. The youngest captain in Slovakia’s history, he has also been the biggest star, along with the former Liverpool centre-back Martin Skrtel, who has retired from international football. Yet it took years to find the right place for Hamsik in Slovakia’s system.

Slovakia fans were impatient with Hamsik, well known for his achievements at Napoli and mohawk hairstyle, and he was often the first blamed when things went wrong. At their first 2010 World Cup game, Slovakia led 1-0 against New Zealand until the 93rd minute, only to concede after Hamsik failed to prevent a cross coming into the box.

“Marek made a mistake … He could have kicked that ball into safety, but he lost it and then we conceded,” the winger Stanislav Sestak said. Slovakia then lost to Paraguay but surprisingly beat Italy to advance to last 16.

For years, Hamsik was shifted around the midfield. At Napoli he often played as the most advanced midfielder but Vladimir Weiss Sr, Slovakia’s coach from 2008-12, even used him on the left. Hamsik made his international debut in 2007 and Jan Kocian, Slovakia’s coach at the time, wanted him as a defensive midfielder.

Marek Hamsik

“I watched him play at Brescia as a kind of 6, or even 8,” he says. “I would say he was a box-to-box midfielder, able to tackle and read the game. He knew when to slow down the game and when to use his first touch.”

Kocian’s task was to oversee a radical generation change in Slovakia’s team, who had missed out on 2006 World Cup, but football federation officials were not enamoured of his desire to build the team around Hamsik.

“Marek didn’t even have a proper place in our under-21 team,” Kocian says. “They tried to dissuade me from it. They told me that he was too arrogant and too big an exhibitionist. However, his football qualities were far bigger than that image that was around him. It was hard to get him into the national team, but I stood behind my idea and called him up.” It was one of Kocian’s best decisions.

Slovakia fans were suspicious, though. Most had never seen him play. When he was 17 he left Slovan Bratislava – without playing in the Slovak top flight – and joined Brescia in Serie B. “Slovaks didn’t watch him play at all,” Kocian said. However, he followed his progress and was impressed.

Kocian wasn’t alone. In March 2007, Brescia beat Juventus, during their season in the Serie B, and Hamsik was among the outstanding players. He swapped shirts with his childhood hero Pavel Nedved, who later talked about Hamsik as his heir. That summer, Hamsik was bought by Napoli.

Marek Hamsik celebrates after scoring for Napoli against Fiorentina in April 2015
Marek Hamsik celebrates after scoring for Napoli against Fiorentina in April 2015. Photograph: Ciro de Luca/Reuters

Napoli proved to be the club of his life. He won the Coppa Italia twice, became captain in 2014 and stayed until 2019. The fans loved him and he played a record 520 games. In 2015 Hamsik declined a move to Juventus, despite Nedved’s best efforts. “In Naples, I am a part of community and family which has a special place in my heart,” Hamsik said. “I need something more than money and trophies. I need to feel something in my soul.” He broke Diego Maradona’s club scoring record, only to be overhauled by Dries Mertens.

Yet in Slovakia Hamsik’s relationship with fans was not always easy. “They usually watched him only in the national team,” Kocian says. “He might have played well in a game for Slovakia, but since the whole team disappointed, the criticism fell on Marek. The player who stands out usually gets the most of the blame.”

When Jan Kozak Sr took over as coach in 2013, he finally found the right role for Hamsik. The player was given licence to roam as a No 10 – a similar role to the one he had at Napoli – and benefited from the presence of Juraj Kucka, a combative box-to-box midfielder.

After disappointing qualifying campaigns for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, Hamsik led Slovakia to Euro 2016, the team beating Spain at home en route. It was the peak for that generation. With Skrtel in defence and Hamsik in midfield, Slovakia made it to the last 16.

Kozak said Hamsik deserved “a big club” but when Hamsik left Napoli it was for Dalian Professional. The club struggled in the Chinese Super League and three months ago Hamsik departed. After a transfer to Slovan failed, he joined IFK Göteborg, hoping to gain match fitness for the Euros. After six league games, Hamsik announced he would join Trabzonspor this summer.

Hamsik sat out two Slovakia friendlies because of a minor calf injury but has said he is fit to face Poland on Monday. The coach, Stefan Tarkovic – Kozak’s former assistant – is counting on him. Slovakia have midfielders of a similar ilk, such as Ondrej Duda, but Hamsik has been irreplaceable and finally Slovakia fans have learned to appreciate him.

“He never refused to come to play for the national team,” Kocian says. “He’s the example for the others. Many players have changed in our midfield, but Hamsik is still there. And we still need him.”

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