In 1992 the Yugoslav team was on the brink of greatness, a feat that was matched across many sports including the world game. The subsequent war resulted in a tragedy that ripped apart the nation and spawned six separate republics: Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Just 19 years after their first official game as a nation they have successfully qualified for the World Cup in Brazil this year for the first time. With a national legend and former superstar at the helm and a crop of young stars playing on Europe’s biggest club stages, Bosnia plan to claim the crown of the Balkan region through their showing 6000 miles away.
Pre-World War One the Austro-Hungarian Empire governed the Bosnian region but when the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born in 1918, football flourished. The national team of Yugoslavia played its first game in 1920 but the squad would remain largely Serb with a smattering of Croats.
Their strength was abundant and would take them to the semi-final of the first World Cup in 1930. After World War Two the Football Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was formed to work alongside the Yugoslavian Football Association and the next fifty years would see a handful of Bosnian players playing a key role in their haul of Olympic medals; one gold, three silver and one bronze.
Ivica Osim remains the most lauded Bosnian of this era, scoring eight in 16 caps for Yugoslavia before later becoming Assistant Manager then Manager, taking the team to the 1990 World Cup. The former goal scoring midfielder later managed Japan before a stroke forced time out of the game.
Osim would return to his homeland to assist on a committee to run the corrupt-ridden Football Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2011. His compatriot Enver Marić, a nationally adored pint-sized goalkeeper, would gain 32 caps for Yugoslavia between 1972-1976 and is still regarded as one of Bosnia’s greats.
As the Yugoslavian team moved closer to a major title on the European stage, war would stifle their progress and halt what has been labeled the greatest team that never was. Bosnia gained independence but at a huge cost. As soldiers, guns and tanks took hold the country appeared to be on its knees. Remarkably however, immediately after the outbreak of Bosnian war, a team was selected called the “Bosnia-Herzegovina Humanitarian Stars”.
Determination to gain identity in the form of football gained momentum and they played three friendlies against Belgium’s Genk and Germany’s Kaiserslautern and Dusseldorf. When FIFA membership was granted in November 1995 Bosnia played their first official game, a 2-0 friendly loss to Albania, in comedic fashion donning kits bought hours before the game in a sports shop.
1998 brought with it UEFA affiliation and also the curious honour of being the first ever-national team to gain worldwide (FIFA) recognition before their regional (UEFA) status. A poor qualifying campaign for UEFA Euro 2000 was followed by a weaker World Cup 2002 qualifying finish, the catalyst for change.
New coach Blaž Slišković engineered a revival and came within a goal of reaching the Euro 2004 finals, only to draw 1-1 against Denmark and finish fourth in a tantalizingly close group. Slišković’s intentions were clear and his influence was felt going into World Cup 2006 qualifying. Bosnia were further buoyed by a group of talented players including Hasan Salihamidžić of Bayern Munich, Elvir Bolić of Fenerbahçe and Elvir Baljić of Real Madrid. Again they came within one game of the Promised Land but lost to Serbia 1-0, a result that caused ferocious crowd violence as ethnic tensions boiled over.
With optimism high entering Euro 2008 qualifying Bosnia were crudely brought down to earth with a disastrous campaign that included red cards, hilarious refereeing decisions and defeats against lowly Moldova, Hungary and an unfair but heavy defeat by Greece. World Cup 2010 qualifying marked a turning point in their fortunes as they finished second behind the unstoppable Spain but lost out in the playoffs to Portugal 2-0 on aggregate.
As Bosnia finished the decade on a relative high, behind the scenes the authorities were doing everything but support the team. All the way back to the turn of the century the country’s Football Federation had been a sham. When in 2002 the domestic leagues of each sectarian background were merged to create a united league, the ‘Savez’, short for Federation, employed a rotation system of each ethnicity (Serb, Croat, Bosnian) to elect the official to govern Bosnian football. In 2006 Iljo Dominković, an ethnic Croat, was a sports journalist and rural corner store worker. Suddenly he was elected to the top job as the most powerful man in Bosnian football.
It is understandable to see why the public claim the Federation was, and still is, run by criminals; money mysteriously went missing from their accounts, senior players claimed they had to buy a place in the squad and other unknown, lowly players suddenly gained a cap and then gained moves to larger clubs in Europe.
Even the most talented players such as captain Sergej Barbarez boycotted the team protest in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign and were soon joined by half the squad. The appointment of former Barcelona and Bosnian legend Meho Kodro appeared to ease the unrest temporarily until chaos resumed when he was sacked after just four months when he refused to take charge of a friendly that the Federation arranged without his knowledge.
His successor Miroslav Blažević performed averagely and lasted a year before the most pivotal moment in the national team’s history.
As Bosnia qualified for their first major tournament in 2013 they could not have picked a better time to do so. The messiah is the undisputed hero of Bosnian football and current coach Safet Sušić. As an attacking midfielder his twenty-year career saw him score 172 goals in 343 goals for French giant Paris Saint-Germain, a feat that meant he was voted the best foreign player ever to grace Ligue 1 in 2012.
His impact on the international scene was equally as powerful; 21 goals in 54 games for Yugoslavia including hat-tricks in comprehensive victories against Italy and Argentina. Probably Yugoslavia’s (and technically Bosnia’s) greatest footballer, he won the plaudits of world greats such as Germany’s Gerd Müller and won even more respect for the fact he was never suspended or injured. With retirement on the cards he even managed to play twice for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 before their official recognition.
Appointed as national coach in 2009 Sušić quickly established a team that played attractive, free-flowing football. Finishing second in Euro 2012 qualifying, just a point behind France, they entered the playoffs but were denied once again by their nemesis Portugal in a surprising 6-2 defeat.
Two years later their successful World Cup 2014 qualifying march came by virtue of goal difference and their potent attacking style; equal at the top of the group with Greece on 25 points, their 30 goals in 10 games easily beat the Greek’s 12.
That’s no surprise as their current frontline consists of Manchester City’s Edin Džeko and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibišević, supported by prolific attacking midfielders, Roma’s Miralem Pjanić and China-based Zvjezdan Misimović. Combined with a steely defence they conceded just six goals, helped hugely by Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begović.
Sušić is taking no chances for their World Cup debut in Brazil this year including banning wives and girlfriends from the squad’s hotel. He believes they have a strong change of advancing past their group of Argentina, Iran and Nigeria should they “quarantine” in his words.
It is a small sacrifice to make considering the strides Bosnia has made in the face of adversity; a barely existent youth system, a shambles of a domestic league and being officially the poorest country on the continent. Throw in a corrupt Football Association and lingering ethnic tensions and Bosnia may well be every football fan’s favourite underdog in Brazil.