Marek Hamsik, the lynchpin of Slovakia’s rise

Bratislava (AFP) – Whenever Slovakia qualifies for a major football tournament, Marek Hamsik is there with his distinctive Mohawk hairstyle, and Euro 2020 will be no exception.

The 33-year-old, who spent most of his career at Serie A side Napoli, played at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2016, and he is now set to feature once again in Slovakia’s midfield at this summer’s postponed European Championship.

“I will draw on my experience from the previous two events,” said Hamsik, who now plays for IFK Gothenburg in Sweden. “I’m looking forward to this one a lot, I just need to be healthy and play at full steam from game one.”

Hamsik has been grappling with a calf injury that forced him to sit out Tuesday’s 1-1 friendly draw with Bulgaria, but Slovakia coach Stefan Tarkovic said he would “be OK to travel to the tournament.”

In Group E, Slovakia face Poland on June 14 and Sweden on June 18, both in St Petersburg, before moving to Seville to take on Spain on June 23.

Hamsik played his first international game in 2007 when he was 17, and he has since established himself as a pillar of the national team.

Named Slovakia’s Footballer of the Year eight times, Hamsik has made a record 126 international appearances for his country.

He played all four games at the 2010 World Cup, which was Slovakia’s first major tournament after it gained independence in 1993 following the split of Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia advanced to the last 16 in South Africa after stunning Italy with a 3-2 win in the group that sent the reigning world champions packing.

At Euro 2016, Hamsik played all three group games and scored as Slovakia qualified from Group B as one of the best third-placed finishers but were thumped 3-0 by eventual semi-finalists Germany in the last 16.

– ‘He loves football’ –

Hamsik left Slovan Bratislava for Italian team Brescia as a callow teen in the summer of 2004, before moving to Napoli three years later.

He stayed in Naples until 2019, during which time he won two Italian Cups and scored 121 goals, breaking Napoli’s all-time scoring record set by Diego Maradona.

Hamsik was eventually overtaken by former teammate Dries Mertens just over a year ago but is remembered in Italy as being a key part of a team that enchanted fans with stylish football and also battled for the Serie A crown.

“I only missed the cherry on the cake, which would have been the league title. Unfortunately, we finished second two or three times,” Hamsik said.

Hamsik, who wears glasses and earrings off the pitch, was once close to a move to Juventus, following in the footsteps of his role model Pavel Nedved, but he changed his mind.

“I would love to sign him. He loves football, he can shoot with both feet, and I can see myself when I watch him deal with different situations,” Nedved once said.

Instead, Hamsik left Napoli for China’s Dalian Pro in 2019 before returning to Europe earlier this year, as the Chinese Super League was due to resume only in late April.

In order to get more game time ahead of the Euro, in March he signed up with Gothenburg.

“The national team was very important in the decision-making,” said Hamsik, adding he was now looking forward to face Sweden at Euro.

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