Vladimir Weiss had just turned 24.
The Manchester City academy product, who was once tipped as the club’s next big thing, had experience of the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A while he had built a reputation on the international scene with Slovakia. The winger was a part of his country’s historic bolt to the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Now Weiss had an offer and a life‑changing decision to make. Except that there was not really a decision. It was an offer he could not refuse – the Qataris tend to make them that way. It was January 2014 and it had come from Lekhwiya, one of the leading clubs in the Qatar Stars League. Weiss was playing for Olympiakos at the time and testing himself in the Champions League. Before long he was on the plane to Doha.
“It was like, you know, an offer like that … you might never get it again in your life,” Weiss says. In terms of the money? “Yeah, of course. In terms of the contract. So, I said yes and I went over to Qatar and I am enjoying myself over there.”
There has long been a swagger about Weiss, from the days when he inspired City to the FA Youth Cup in 2008 – a sureness about himself that can stray into cockiness, and he will pose an attacking threat to Wales in Bordeaux in the Euro 2016 Group B opener on Saturday afternoon.
He cites Conor McGregor, the trash-talking ultimate fighter, as one of his idols while he enjoys bigging up Rangers, sometimes at the expense of Celtic, on his Twitter feed. Weiss spent the 2010-11 season on loan from City at Ibrox, where he won the league title and the League Cup. On as a substitute in the final against Celtic, he set up the extra-time winner for Nikica Jelavic with a quickly taken free-kick.
Perhaps it is in the genes. Weiss’s grandfather Vladimir was an international footballer for Czechoslovakia and his father, another Vladimir, played at that level, too, before becoming a manager. He was in charge of Slovakia at the 2010 World Cup – the nation’s finest footballing hour. He is now the manager of Georgia.
What shines through, though, is Weiss’s candour and it goes beyond the discussion of his motivations about Qatar; he is now at al-Gharafa, having joined them in January on a four-and-a-half-year deal. He does not hide his antipathy towards Roberto Mancini, the manager who blocked his progress at City and deemed him surplus to requirements, nor does he pull his punches on England, whom he and Slovakia will face in Saint–Étienne in their final group tie at Euro 2016.
Weiss joined City in 2005, when he was 15, and a significant part of his life has been in the north-west of England. The Mancunian in him surfaces when he refers to his first professional club as “Cit-eh,” and there was also the Premier League loan to Bolton Wanderers in the second half of 2009-10, when he played alongside Jack Wilshere.
The Arsenal midfielder, who was on loan as well, has remained a friend and there is sure to be a bit of back-and-forth between the pair before the game on 20 June. But Weiss makes the point that it is one thing to qualify impressively – as England did – and another to triumph at a finals and he sounds surprised when asked whether Roy Hodgson’s squad could be considered as contenders for the title.
“You mean the whole title?” Weiss says. “Er, I don’t know. You look at England’s last championships. They always win the qualification group and then, when they come to the big tournaments, they never do well.
“One thing that I don’t like is the press in England because, usually, they really, really put a big criticism to the players and sometimes it’s too much. They don’t give the players confidence, so I think that’s the main thing why England is never successful in the big tournaments.
“I saw them against Germany, being 2-0 down and winning 3-2, and that was a great result for them,” he adds of March’s victory in Berlin. “They have great young players coming up so, obviously, they are the favourites in the group. But they won’t have it easy against us.”
Weiss says that they will draw strength from their team spirit, together with the manner of their qualification. They made a flying start, beating Ukraine 1-0 away and then Spain 2-1 at home, and they finished as runners-up in the group to Spain.
It is their first appearance at a European Championship and only their second at a major finals – after the World Cup in South Africa. As an aside, Slovakia have been drawn to face England and Scotland in qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“We got results in qualifying that we probably didn’t even expect before we started the group, so we’re going to take confidence into the three games,” Weiss says. “We want to go to the next round. It’s not going to be easy for us but, for sure, we will not make it easy for the other teams.”
Weiss’s career has been nomadic and it was shaped when Mancini took over from Mark Hughes at City on 20 December 2009. Three days previously Weiss had signed a three-year contract at the club and Hughes told their website that he had “all the attributes that electrify crowds and that can turn matches”.
Hughes gave Weiss his debut in May 2009, as a 19-year-old substitute in the Premier League against Bolton and, the following season, he used him off the bench in three Carling Cup ties. In the quarter-final win over Arsenal Weiss scored his first professional goal. Mancini did grant him his full debut in the FA Cup victory at Middlesbrough in January 2010 but he was soon sent to Bolton – the first of three loan moves.
“I loved my time at Man City,” Weiss says. “I grew up there, really, as a player. And everything was going well for me until Mancini came. I had to go on loan every year. He brought many players in and never really gave me a chance. That was the main thing why I never stayed. Under Mark Hughes I did get my debut and I did get a few games. It was going really well and then, unfortunately, he lost his job and I lost my place in the team.”
Weiss says it was as though Mancini took one look at him and decided he was not the player for him. “I felt like it, at the time,” he says. “I was only 20 and when I look at the player I am now and the one I was then … I know that I had a lot of things to learn and there was that feeling that he never really gave me the chance that I properly wanted.
“Maybe he could have kept me for a bit longer and I could have grown at Man City, because it was a big club. I felt really good. They signed a long-term contract with me just before Mancini came, so I was a bit unlucky, but there are no regrets. I am enjoying myself where I am now, with my family.”
Weiss had a season-long loan in 2011-12 at Mauricio Pochettino’s Espanyol and he got on extremely well with the man now in charge at Tottenham Hotspur. Weiss was able to experience the derby against Barcelona, the first of which finished in a 1-1 home draw; the second in a 4-0 away defeat. Lionel Messi scored all four. The atmosphere would be pretty crazy at Olympiakos but Weiss rates the Old Firm in Glasgow as the most intense game he has played in.
Weiss signed permanently for Pescara, who were newly promoted to Serie A, on a one-year deal in 2012, only for them to go straight back down and he joined Olympiakos in the summer of 2013. He had a three-year contract but he lasted six months. The riches of Qatar had presented themselves.
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