My sme majstri: in more ways than one
As an American brought up on Vince Lombardi’s famous words (“Winning isn’t everything - it’s the only thing”), I was stunned by this reaction. After all, they had lost. What would happen if they ever won?
I found out this year. With the dramatic Peter Bondra goal in the 59th minute of the 2002 Ice Hockey World Championship game, Slovakia had for the first time in its short history won it all, 4-3 over Russia.
My sme majstri. We are the champions. That is now the well-deserved mantra of the entire Slovak nation, not just its players. I could go on and on about the feats of Bondra, Miro Šatan, Ziggy Pálffy, Ján Lašák and the rest of the hockey squad. But even the deft skills of these world-class - indeed, world champion - athletes could not overshadow what took place among the Slovak citizenry. It was unparalleled positive unity.
Because I was travelling for this magazine, I was fortunate enough to watch the tournament in different regions across the country. A game against Ukraine, for example, I saw in the spa town Piešťany, in a pizzeria with a crowd of tensely silent spectators. When Slovakia scored the winning goal in the final five minutes, the roar was deafening. Not on TV, mind you, but across the entire city. Slovakia 5, Ukraine 4.
Then there was a meaningless game against Russia - ‘meaningless’ because both teams had already advanced to the final eight regardless of the outcome. In Fiľakovo, a southern Slovak town of predominantly Hungarian-speaking citizens, I sat in the bar of the Penzión Pepita. The room was a steady hum of Hungarian. Except, that is, when it erupted six times to scream “Góóóóóól!” Slovakia 6, Russia 4.
In the central Slovak mining town Nová Baňa, I watched the quarter-final against Canada in a pub that features Communist wall decorations alongside framed photos of former PM Vladimír Mečiar. With Slovakia trailing 2-0, spirits were low. But then Bondra halved the deficit with a goal two seconds before the close of the second period, and old men were jumping and shouting, dancing with young women. “We can do it,” the whole bar sang. “We can do it, boys!” When the Slovaks scored two more goals at the beginning of the final period, a man in the corner shouted knowingly over and over again, “I told you we’d be winning by now! I told you!” And a tiny nation now fully believed that it could compete with anyone in the world. Slovakia 3, Canada 2.
The semi-final against the home team and tournament favourite, Sweden, I watched in Liptovská Kokava, a mountain village below the High Tatras. The pub was packed, every chair pulled up to the bar, where the TV shared space on a shelf with a bust of Stalin. Again, Slovakia fell behind 2-0. But the announcer, who was every bit as emotionally involved as the man to my right in worker’s overalls, reminded viewers: “We were also losing to Canada 2-0. Friends, our boys can do it!”
Then Miro Šatan - the man chanting Slovaks on SNP square in Bratislava would four days later call ‘God’ - scored with less than two minutes left to tie up the game and force overtime. Mayhem! Grown men and women were cackling like children, crying like new-borns and believing in themselves like I had never seen before. The Slovaks won on penalty shots, and again the nation rejoiced. Meanwhile, an utterly blissful and drunken pensioner grabbed me and planted a wet borovička kiss on my cheek as the announcer bellowed: “Slovensko proti Rusku! Slovensko proti Rusku vo finále!” Slovakia 3, Sweden 2.
I returned to my host city Spišská Nová Ves for the final. But of course you don’t need a play-a-play. Anyone with an even remote interest in Slovakia knows what happened next. Slovakia won. Finally. And a whole nation chanted in unison ‘My sme majstri sveta!’ (We are the champions of the world.) Slovakia 4, Russia 3.
The reaction afterwards was an unbridled outburst of joy. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to celebrate. Intoxicated but peaceful revellers hugged and kissed, dropped to their knees and shouted to the heavens “Ďakujeme!” They sang ‘We are the Champions’ and the Slovak National Anthem (see lyrics above) hundreds of times over and again, waved and kissed Slovak flags. Tens of thousands cried.
The papers said 50,000 people greeted the hockey heroes in Bratislava the next day on SNP square. My landlord - who had flown to Sweden for the title match - told me: “Not even when Communism fell were there that many people on SNP. This is unbelievable.”
Others went so far as to call the victory the birth of a new nation. “When I saw people’s responses on SNP Square, I realised that I was watching the modern Slovak nation being born,” said political scientist Soňa Szomolányi. “Most of the people on SNP were teenagers, people who don’t remember 1989 or [the Warsaw Pact troop invasion in] 1969. For the first time in recent memory, a public demonstration in Slovakia had nothing to do with history, oppression, politics or nationalism. It was a celebration of Slovakia’s potential.
“We now have a new Slovak generation - that of 2002. Our players demonstrated that we are a modern country able to compete with the best in the world.”
Added sociologist Miro Tízik: “We’ve seen an immense sense of resignation since 1989 concerning things outside our immediate families. As a result, Slovak society has become steadily more individualistic, with people retreating from public life into their own families. Many young people have been leaving Slovakia, because while they believe in their own abilities, they doubt that Slovaks as a society are able to achieve anything really meaningful.
“But then all of a sudden in those hockey matches, they saw that Slovaks together can achieve something.”
What a wonderful achievement! A country of just five million people (one of the smallest in the tournament) taking on the world and emerging as champion.
And not just on the ice. The way the Slovak people united was truly touching. An American friend in Spišská, who was equally amazed by the event, made a succinct point afterwards. “What was so incredible was seeing a whole nation come together for something good. Countries come together when they’re bombed. When do people ever come together for something positive?”
I can’t answer that. All I can say is: Thank you, Slovakia. Thank you for showing me again why this is such a special place. I celebrate for the Slovak nation. No-one deserves this more than you.
-Chris Togneri, with Tom Nicholson
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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