Two days ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina – a republic of the former Yugoslavia and an independent country since 1992 – qualified for its first ever appearance at a FIFA World Cup (Brasil 2014) by winning its qualifying group. The team was managed by former Yugoslavia and Paris Saint-Germain star Safet “Pape” Sušić and featured a number of presently world-renown footballers including Edin Džeko (Manchester City), Miralem Pjanić (Roma), Vedad Ibišević (Stuttgart) and Asmir Begović (Stoke City). This achievement, while only a small feat in global sporting terms, may be just the medicine for a nation deep in economic and political turmoil as it looks at European integration and a brighter future.
Countries from the former Yugoslav federation have a special relationship with football and the FIFA World Cup. Yugoslavia itself, then known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, claimed fourth place in the inaugural World Cup held in 1930 in Uruguay. The more modern Yugoslavia played in a World Cup semi-final in 1962, and reached the quarter-final stage on three other occasions (1954, 1958, 1990). Croatia, a republic of former Yugoslavia and now an independent country, more recently took third place in the 1998 World Cup held in France while also reaching the group stages in 2002 (Japan/Korea) and 2006 (Germany). Serbia, another republic of former Yugoslavia, reached the World Cup last 16 once (1998) and played in the group stages a further two times (2006 & 2010). Slovenia, another former Yugoslav republic, qualified for the World Cup group stages on two different occasions too, 2002 and 2010.
When compared to their neighbors, Bosnia and Herzegovina, another former Yugoslavia republic that gained independence in the bloody wars of the early 1990s, has not experienced similar footballing success. Their national team attempted to qualify for a World Cup on four different occasions (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010) without success, with their 2010 playoff berth and subsequent loss to Portugal (2-0 on aggregate) marking the closest they came to a World Cup spot of the four attempts.
A nation torn by war
The only European country to endure an act of genocide (as declared by The Hague International Criminal Court) since World War II, Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992. For the following four years, the country and its people suffered through what would later become known as the Bosnian War. The Bosnian War officially ended on December 15th 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace agreement.
Laying the foundations
With the war raging, football was put on the back-burner in Bosnia, though a selection of Bosnia and Herzegovina players did play humanitarian matches against K.R.C. Genk and 1. FC Kaiserslautern in March 1993 under the name “Bosnia-Herzegovina Humanitarian Stars”. Another selection played and won a game against Iran in Tehran a few months later while a third selection played another humanitarian match against Fortuna Düsseldorf in July 1995. It was in November 1995 however that the Bosnia and Herzegovina national football team played it’s first proper friendly match, this time against Albania in Tirana, having first gained provisional membership from world’s football governing body FIFA. Bosnia and Herzegovina lost 2–0. The Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially declared a FIFA member in July 1996.
The early Bosnian teams were not bereft of talent. Six-time Bundesliga and one time Champions League winner (with Bayern Munich) Hasan Salihamidžić was one of the first players to don the white and blue of his national team in 1996, going on to make 46 appearances and score 6 goals for his country before retiring in 2006. Other notable players to wear the Bosnian jersey include Elvir Baljić (Real Madrid), Elvir Bolić (Fenerbahce), Meho Kodro (Barcelona) and Sergej Barbarez (Borussia Dortmund/Hamburger SV).
World Cup 2014 Qualification
While the national team did show relative progress in previous qualifying campaigns, it was at the beginning of their most recent qualifying campaign that critics and fans alike were shown a glimpse of a new and determined Bosnian national team ready to achieve more.Bosnia was grouped with former European champions Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and perennial bottom-dwellers Liechtenstein in UEFA Group G – a group definitely not to be scoffed at. It was at Liechtenstein on 7 September 2012 that Bosnia kicked off their qualifying campaign with an emphatic scoreline of 1-8 with both prolific center forwards Vedad Ibišević and Edin Džeko bagging hat-tricks. National team stalwart Zjezdan Misimović also got in on the action with two goals of his own.
The Bosnian national team, fondly dubbed the Dragons (Zmajevi) by their loyal fans, followed this win with two big home victories, a 4-1 drubbing of Latvia and a 3-1 defeat of Lithuania. A solid 0-0 draw away to Greece on 12 October 2012 in a jam-packed Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens was sandwiched between the two wins to close off 2012, with Bosnia deservedly topping group G on 10 points.
The beginning of 2013 brought more of the same. Greece was destroyed at home in Zenica on March 22 2013 with a 3-1 scoreline, with those men Džeko (twice) and Ibišević at it again. Next came a 0-5 annihilation of Latvia away in Riga on 7th of June 2013, with five different players scoring goals (Senad Lulić, Vedad Ibišević, Haris Medunjanin, Miralem Pjanić, Edin Džeko).
The first and only hiccup of this campaign came courtesy of a rejuvenated Slovakia in Zenica on 6 September 2013 when Bosnia was defeated 0-1. Surprisingly, the Dragons were playing at home in their fortress of a stadium Bilino Polje, where they had previously been unbeaten since 2010. Their big nine-game unbeaten streak in all games was broken too as the Slovaks triumphed.
The comebackHaving occupied top spot for more then a year, this loss came as a great shock to everyone involved. Old insecurities and doubts about big game nerves or lack thereof raised their ugly heads. The previously idolized manager Safet Sušić had to face the media and defend his players and his methods, too.
The doubts were chased away soon though, as Bosnia faced the same opponent only four days later in a do-or-die game in Žilina, Slovakia on 10 September 2013. Bosnian fans, showing an unwavering belief in their team, turned up in unprecedented numbers outnumbering home fans by 5 to 1.
Things got off to a bad start as Napoli’s Marek Hamšík fired the hosts into a lead shortly before half time. Bosnia came out firing after the break though and got back on level terms thanks to defender Ermin Bičakčić who prodded home in Solskjaer-esque fashion to make for a tense finish.
In the 78th minute, having come on only 10 seconds earlier, Izet Hajrović let loose a left-footed thunderbolt from 25 meters smashing the back of the net, leaving Slovakian goalkeeper Mucha clutching for air and sending thousands of Bosnians world-wide into delirium. The final score was a 1-2 win for Bosnia.
“It was an instinctive reaction, I just let fly after finding a bit of space and I am delighted to have made such a wonderful contribution to this priceless win,” said the 22-year old Grasshoppers attacking midfielder to Bosnian Face TV.
The Bosnians now had their fate firmly back in their own hands. They proceeded to dispatch Liechtenstein at home by a scoreline of 4-1 with those three ever-present players at it again – Ibišević, Džeko (brace) and Misimović all scoring.
Bosnia had accumulated 22 points from their nine games, the same as Greece, but with a better head-to-head record meaning the young nation was in the lead. All that was needed was a victory in Kaunas against Lithuania on October 15 2013 for these young men and their coach to claim a spot at next year’s World Cup in Brasil and cement their place in Bosnian football history.
The culmination of twenty years of hard work
It was on October 15, 2013 at the Darius and Girėnas Stadium in Kaunas Lithuania that Bosnian captain Emir Spahić led his team out for the final time in this qualifying campaign to cheers from the visiting crowd, many of whom had braved 20 hour+ drives to support their team.
The Bosnian coach Sušić sent his team out to attack from the kick-off, with an attacking quartet of Ibišević, Džeko, Misimović and Pjanić, and with only three recognized defenders at the back. His counterpart Csaba László set out to pack his defense and try and hit on the counter if the opportunity arose.
In a tense first half with very few obvious chances, Lithuanian goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis demonstrated he was going to have the game of his life as he saved dangerous free kicks from Pjanić not once, but twice.
There was more of the same in the second half as the Bosnian’s piled on the pressure in search of a historic winner with Arlauskis doing his utmost to deny them. He saved another Pjanić free-kick and somehow got a hand to an Ibišević piledriver that looked set for the bottom corner. It looked as though nothing would go in for the Dragons.
It was just deserts then, that in the 68th minute Misimović passed to former Wolfsburg teammate Džeko at the edge of the box, the latter proceeded to beat his marker for the first time in the game, get to the byline and cross for a waiting Ibišević to prod home. What followed needs no describing as the popular Vedo wheeled off in celebration and thousands screamed in joy. Bosnia held on to win 0-1 and qualify for a World Cup tournament for the first time since their independence in 1992.
This was a victory that echoed across the Carpathians into Bosnia and the whole of former Yugoslavia. It echoed across the Baltic Sea into the homes of Bosnian expatriates in Scandinavia. It echoed over the Alps to Western Europe where thousands of Bosnians call Germany, Austria, France, Italy and other countries home. It echoed far across the North Atlantic into Canada and the USA where thousands more are living the American Dream. It echoed across Asia and into Australia where further more sat late into the night watching this historic game and celebrating a historic victory.
Many expatriate Bosnians are refugees of the 1990s war and for the first time in a long time they could go into work the next morning and proudly boast about a sporting victory of their countrymen.
But more importantly, for the first time in 20 years, this victory and this team brought together a nation torn apart by economic turmoil and political and national differences for so long. These young men showed that a united Bosnia can stand tall and proud and take its place as an equal among equals at the world stage. These young men showed that a team comprised of Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs and Croats can work, play and stand together as brothers to represent their country and succeed. This was about more than just a game of football. This was about the future of Bosnia.
Let us stand together and congratulate them on this historic achievement and wish them the best of luck in Brasil at the World Cup in 2014. They deserve it!