DURBAN: When your national press labels your progression from group stage to knock-out phase of the World Cup as a "miracle", it sums up the notion of a being a rank outsider in world football.
Slovakia go into Monday`s second-round game against the Netherlands, on a run of seven wins and unbeaten in 22 games, as complete underdogs.
But underdogs who dispatched an admittedly under-par Italy, the defending champions, 3-2 in their final group game to make sure of their qualification.
They now come up against a Dutch side brimming with talent and household names, the likes of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Mark van Bommel and Dirk Kuyt in their ranks.
The average punter could probably muster more names of players left on the Dutch bench than actually taking the pitch for Slovakia, whose football association was founded in 1993 after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.
This is Slovakia`s World Cup debut, made instantly memorable by their victory over the Italians.
"We didn`t have anything to lose because no one expected us to beat Italy, they had all the pressure," said midfielder Mioslav Stoch, who plies his club trade with Turkish giants Fenerbahce.
"It will be similar against the Dutch because they have to win, they are expected to, and the pressure will be on them.
"Whereas we again will have nothing to lose. Nobody expected us to go through then and no one expects us to now."
Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss acknowledged that his team would be up against opposition whose players are on the books of the world`s leading clubs.
"The Dutch are a fantastic team," he said. "They have a lot of players who play in the best club teams in the world, and with good coaches.
"They are one of the favourites in the tournament but you never know. It is like when we played against Italy, we have a good spirit and we must impress."
He added: "The favourites are the Dutch, like the Italians were, but you never know. We`ll see."
Crucial to Slovakia`s play is 22-year-old captain Marek Hamsik, who moved to Serie A in 2004 and this season scored 12 goals for Napoli as they finished sixth to qualify for next season`s Europa League.
"He`s a world-class player," said Weiss. "He`s always put in great performances wherever I`ve positioned him, and it`s for all those reasons that I decided to make him captain."
Hamsik set up Robert Vittek for his two goals against Italy, a game in which Stoch never stopped harrying the Azzurri defence, while holding duo Jurak Kucka and Zdenko Strba stifled the Italian attack, and in-form goalkeeper Jan Mucha made a series of good saves.
Having failed to score in nine games during qualifying for the World Cup, Vittek has now hit three in three games in South Africa to jointly-lead the scoring charts.
"The Dutch are clear favourites but we will try to give them a hard time," said Vittek. "As newcomers we have nothing to lose."
Attacking midfielder Erik Jendrisek added: "We showed (against Italy) that we also know how to play attacking football.
"Italy were undoubtedly surprised by how we performed and what we were able to do. The difference between this match and our last two games was that as well as trying to play football, this time we did it with heart."
BDST: 1522hrs, June 27, 2010