There is no understating the importance of Slovakia’s match with Northern Ireland on Thursday.
Ninety minutes separate Slovakia from the 2020 UEFA European Championships and Real Salt Lake midfielder Albert Rusnàk is eager to take the field in a match being hyped throughout the country.
“The talks already back home is that it’s the biggest game of the century,” Rusnàk said. “It’s huge. For the people, for the players, for the whole nation, to be honest. I think the whole country will be watching. It’s a big job to do, but it’s something doable. There’s too much on the line.”
Slovakia finished the Group Stage in European Qualifying at 4-3-1, good for third place in Group E behind Croatia and Wales in matches that concluded in November of 2019. Originally, Slovakia was scheduled to meet the Republic of Ireland in a playoff back in March, but due to the pandemic, the match was moved to October. That match went 120 minutes before Slovakia advanced on penalties, setting the stage for the match with Northern Ireland.
For Slovakia, it would mark a return to the European Championships after qualifying for the first time in the 2016 tournament. With a 2-1-1 all-time record against Northern Ireland, Rusnàk and company are confident heading into Thursday’s matchup.
“We got a good taste of what that one-off game feels like,” Rusnàk said. “We’re 90 minutes away from being there again. It shows how close you are to it. But the game is still to be played and we’re not there yet.”
Slovakia enters the match under the guidance of interim head coach Stefan Tarkovic, but the team has a lot of familiarity with its caretaker. Tarkovic previously served as an assistant from 2013-2018 and was in the interim role during the transition between the previous two coaches.
Now one match away from the grand stage of the Euros, the focus is on finding a way to win on Thursday.
“If we make it to the Euros nobody’s going to ask us if we won on penalties or extra time or 90 minutes. It’s just about winning,” Rusnàk said. “That one game will be about leaving everything on the field in order for your team to win and go to the Euros.”
Rusnàk knows what’s at stake in the match. After joining Slovakia in the Fall after the 2016 Euros, he is on cusp of playing in what he describes as the second-biggest national team event behind the World Cup.
The two-time RSL Golden Boot winner sees a great opportunity for himself, for Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer. It would mark the biggest tournament appearance for an RSL player since Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborio went to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“It’s huge to play with the national team whatever the game is. But to play in the Euros … those games are streamed all over the world and they’re highly watched. To be part of that and play in that is a dream for every player,” he said. “I’m sure our fans would be proud to have a player as a part of the European Championships. They would be proud that an RSL player is representing his country, but is also representing RSL and MLS at the biggest stage possible.”
Thursday’s match at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland kicks off at 12:45 p.m. MT.