Euro 2016: Why Marek Hamsik deserves to be recognized as one of Europe's elites
Marek Hamsik has finally lived up to Slovakia’s expectations of him at the UEFA Euro 2016, as the stalemate that they played out against England saw them through to the knockout rounds. While the spiky haired Neapolitan wasn't at his influential best in that particular game, it would be remiss to say that he has been anything but brilliant in this tournament.
Slovakia's show of dogged resilience in Saint Etienne was a well-engineered attempt at desperately clinging on to the third place, and their domineering display on matchday 2 was a far more convincing statement of intent, and also a better testament to the fine individual talent of their tormentor-in-chief Marek Hamsik.
As Slovakia brushed past a flaccid Russian side and condemned them to a far more orthodox exit than their earlier threatened expulsion, the star of the show was undoubtedly their talismanic playmaker, whose imperious performance ranks as one of the best so far of the tournament alongside those of Dimitri Payet against Romania, and Andres Iniesta against Turkey.
After an evenly balanced yet uneventful opening half an hour, Hamsik made his first significant impact on the game by splitting a ponderous Russian defence with a raking pass that was just as impeccable as Vladimir Weiss' subsequent exquisite finish. He repeated the trick at halftime, as he dawdled near the touchline, before cutting inside onto his stronger right foot and whipping in a perfectly weighted curler that left Akinfeev perplexed, and pinged in off the post to take the roof off a buoyant Stade Pierre Mauroy.
Each of the two goals illustrated his catalytic qualities perfectly. More importantly, his majestic showing further highlighted the fact that the criminally underrated Neapolitan belongs to football's biggest stage, and thoroughly vindicated the various media outlets that had recently proclaimed his talent to be tantamount to that of other elite footballers like Gareth Bale.
Hamsik’s career in a nutshell
Hamsik's career began at Slovan Bratislava, but his stint there was short-lived despite being productive. After only 6 appearances for the most successful team in Slovakia, Italian top flight side Brescia identified his latent talent and prized him away from his home country for a fee of 500k euros.
The injection of Hamsik's creativity and verve, however, wasn't enough to save them from relegation to Serie B - a predicament which ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise for him, as that was where his exceptional talent finally got the chance to flourish.
An excellent season with north Italian side and a return of 10 goals in 65 appearances was enough to convince owner Aurelio de Laurentiis to shell out a cool 5.5 million euros and recruit him to be a vital cog of his recently refurbished and newly promoted Napoli side. And thus, began Hamsik's love affair with Naples.
An explosive debut against Cesena in which he scored one and created one set the pace, and in the nine years that he has since spent plying his trade at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, his influence has rarely waned. Despite playing a floating role in midfield, he finished his first three seasons as the team's top scorer, and currently sits fifth on the club's all-time top scorers list.
His development since his arrival has been impressive, as he has strengthened every aspect of his play, constantly reinventing himself to fit the team's needs - the only constant being that trademark funky "La Cresta" hairdo. Combining tenacity and finesse with a superb passing repertoire, he has been the powerhouse behind Napoli's impressive stretch of finishes in the last half-decade.
Along with Gonzalo Higuain, he was the chief architect of their ill-fated but highly engaging title tilt this year that saw them finish runners-up to perennial Scudetto holders Juventus.
On the international stage, his impact has been no less spectacular, having notched up 90 caps to date as the central focus of the Slovakian side. Since making his debut in 2007, he has gone from strength to strength, playing his typical tactically versatile role to great effect, particularly in the 2010 World Cup and the qualifications leading to the tournament.
He was a key factor behind the national team's remarkable run to the knockout rounds in South Africa, which included an enthralling fixture against Italy that played out 3-2 in favour of Slovakia, and condemned the then world champions to a group stage exit.
Consistently impressive performances have led to widespread adulation and reverence for him in his homeland, and he has taken home the Slovak Footballer Of The Year trophy an astonishing 5 times in the last 7 years. They have also predictably led to him being relentlessly pursued by Europe's elite, with Real Madrid and AC Milan being the most prominent suitors over the years.
While teammates like Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani moved on to greener pastures, he turned down sacks of money and pledged his future to Napoli in a display of unwavering loyalty that comes as a breath of fresh air in today's era of corporate inanity.
Despite the constant comparisons to other legendary one-club-men like Lampard and Totti, and even being proclaimed by Pavel Nedved himself as his heir, the lack of recognition and reverence for him outside Italy is truly disappointing.
While his impact often gets understated due to him playing second billing to the likes of Cavani and Higuain during his time at the club, his potency, pedigree, and panache have been a vital driving force in Napoli's revival, as the club has enjoyed its most sustained period of success ever since the early 90's, when they were led by a certain Diego Armando Maradona.
Though a comparison with the diminutive Argentine legend who enjoys a godlike status in Naples is a bit extravagant, there is no doubt that his longevity and loyalty to the club has already ensured his place amongst the pantheon of countless Napoli heroes, and a major contribution to causing an unlikely upset in the knockout rounds where they face Germany would elevate his name beyond his contemporaries and ensure his status as Slovakia's finest.