With the World Cup just days away, excitement is building for fans of the beautiful game around the world. For each of the 32 nations participating in Brazil this summer, the World Cup brings a plethora of emotions: excitement, nervousness, and pure joy. For one of the countries, however, the World Cup holds promise of uniting a war torn, divided region. This country is World Cup debutants, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Bosnia- Herzegovina did not exist as a country until 1992 when they declared their independence from the former Yugoslavia. A month after independence, a brutal, ethnic-cleansing, civil war erupted between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. The war devastated the nation, and even when truce was called in late 1995, the tormented country knew things would never be the same. However amidst the gloom, hope rose through the simple joy of football: Bosnia-Herzegovina played their first international match only 9 days after the truce was called. Now, in 2014, the Dragons have qualified for their first World Cup.
The sheer joy that football brings this country of less than 4 million people is remarkable; the day after the Dragons qualified for Brazil after a 1-0 win over Lithuania, more than 50,000 people gathered on the streets of the capital Sarajevo to welcome their heroes back. “Vi steponosdrzave” they chanted—“you are the country’s pride.” Coach Safet Susic knows what the World Cup could mean for Bosnia. “A few years ago you could not imagine Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats supporting the team, but that could change now,” he said. Bosnian Serbs and Croats still prefer to support Serbia and Croatia respectively, but the World Cup could change that and unite the divided, poverty-stricken nation.
The Dragons could prove to be one of the feel good stories of the World Cup, not only for their tragic story but also for their attacking brand of football. Safet Susic’s believes in a straightforward plan: “score more than your opponent, no matter how much it will cost.” Such a philosophy does sometimes seem naive, especially as they line up in a seemingly lopsided and unbalanced 4-1-3-2 with only one holding midfielder. With their defense clearly their weak link despite the presence of Bayer Leverkusen center back and national team captain Emir Spahic as well as Stoke City keeper Asmir Begovic, one does worry for their chances against the likes of Messi and Aguero when the Bosnians take on Argentina in Group F. However, this team plays to its strengths: an irresistible, powerful offense. With dynamic attackers like EdinDzeko, Vedad Ibisevic, and Senad Lulic ahead of the brilliant Roma creator Miralem Pjanic (who was very successful in our Serie A 2013/14 End of Season Awards), B-H plays exciting, likeable football.
The Dragons qualified for the World Cup by virtue of topping their group, scoring 30 goals in 10 games and conceding only 6 en route. Admittedly, their group was hardly the most competitive, with the likes of Greece and Slovakia the other “big” teams in the group; but for the debutants, regardless of the strength of their group, the magnitude of their achievement does not diminish. B-H dominated their group with 8 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss and guaranteed a top 2 finish in their group even before their final game against Lithuania. In European qualifying, the first place team in the group gains an automatic spot to the World Cup with the second place team entering into a two-legged playoff with one of the other second place European finishers. B-H went into the final game level on points with Greece but ahead on goal difference; a win would see them finish first and qualify directly. But the Dragons wanted to win and not risk the playoffs especially after suffering heartbreak in 2010 World Cup qualifying and 2012 Euro qualifying: B-H went out both times to Portugal. Ahead of the final game, Susic said, “It would have been a real injustice if we had failed to win the group and qualify for the World Cup.” For a country that has not had much to cheer about in recent times, another failure after getting so close would have been devastating.
Looking ahead to the World Cup, B-H opens their campaign against Argentina, with Nigeria and Iran to come. But the Dragons expect to reach the Round of 16, with Susic saying, “I honestly believe we have the quality to reach the last 16 and that is our objective in the World Cup.” The former PSG midfielder is adamant that his team will stick to their attacking philosophy: “We will play the way we have always played because it would be wrong to change our approach now, although we are aware that our style may be a tactical gamble.” Neutrals hope Susic will stay true to his philosophy, as B-H’s free-flowing style on the biggest stage in world football will definitely garner plaudits and gain many fans.
More recently, the South East European country has been plagued by terrifying floods that has affected more than a million people. But despite this travesty, the country has once again united in support of each other and indeed the footballers have given their helping hand as well. The World Cup again provides a platform for a country to motivate it’s heroes, to rejoice even if for a brief bit, in these times of struggles.
The country knows that one tournament will not magically end the ethnic problems that have plagued the nation for almost two decades. But the passion for the beautiful game is a stepping stone to unity: the emotion the country felt when Ibisevic slotted the goal against Lithuania that put the Dragons on the plane to Brazil was one of jubilation that let the Bosnians, regardless of their ethnicity, forget the difficulties of the past and the present. No matter what happens in Brazil, this team will be national heroes for the rest of their lives.