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Are the boys from Bosnia ready to make their mark on world football?

Oliver McManus writes about the Bosnia national football team, and their journey thus far.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the most beautiful places in the world, – I’m reliably informed – yet one with the most complex of histories and loaded with tales to tell.

Football in the country isn’t doing too badly, with their national team reaching new heights at a constant rate and a domestic league which is gradually attracting the wealth of new investors. Let’s explore this rich tapestry, then.

Part of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina was ravaged by war in the period from 1992 to 1995, after they had declared independence from the regime, with thousands dead and many more fleeing to surrounding areas.

A rebuilding project began around the country and, it is no exaggeration to say, football has played more than a small part in this over the last 22 years.

Let’s start domestically, where the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Liga 12 (we’ll call it the latter), serves as the nation’s top division.

Founded a surprisingly, short 17 years ago, it is currently ranked 39th by UEFA and, each season, receives 1 club berth into the Champions League and 3 into the Europa League.

So, from a distant glance, most people would forgive you for thinking it is quite a lousy league, but not I, oh no!

Because, investigate the final details and you will see that, domestically, the league is more competitive than the mere ink on the paper of history books would care to suggest.

Since the year 2000, 7 clubs have claimed the national championship with, Sarajevo-based, FK Željezničar being the most successful having captured 5 titles.

It must be said, however, that Liga 12, wasn’t the first attempt at creating sustainable, competitive, football in Bosnia – there were 2 previous top divisions which failed to get off the ground – for various political and sporting reasons – and were soon consigned to the bin.

The present incarnation, itself, has undergone several changes – none more drastic than the downsizing the league from 16 teams to 12 just before the start of this season.

Aimed at increasing competitiveness, the end of the regular season sees the bottom 6 take part in a battle to avoid the two relegation slots and the top 6 compete for the title and 4 prestigious European spots.

Talking of Europe, Bosnian clubs have never fared too great, with no team being able to reach the group stages of either the Europa League or Champions League.

Nontheless, some big nights have befallen the giants of Bosnia and Herzegovina, most notably in the 2002-03 season, whereby FK Željezničar made it to the final qualification round of the Champions League.

Here they would face a Newcastle United of old and a chance to etch the names forever into European Football folklore. Alas, it was but a chance, with the Tyneside club running out the victors 5-0.

So, from their deceptively dangerous domestic game, let’s take a look at the fortunes of their national team.

The first representatives of a Bosnian team were the Bosnia-Herzegovina Humanitarian Stars who, in 1993 played a series of friendlies against K.R.C Genk and FC Kaiserslautern.

Shortly after, a full national team played an unofficial friendly agaisnt Iran – which they won by 3 goals to 1.

The Football Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina had to wait two years, however, for recognition from FIFA and UEFA.

Kicking off life in the official ranks with a 2-0 defeat to Albania, the nation’s first chance to make an impact on the world came as they attempted to qualify for the 1998 World Cup.

Finishing 4th in a 5 team group featuring Slovenia, Croatia, Denmark and Greece, The Dragons failed to raise any eyebrows and their lacklustre performances set the tone for their fortunes over the next 12 years.

Other than missing out by a single goal – to the Danes, yet again – to fall at the final hurdle in qualification for the 2004 Euros, Bosnia would continue to disappoint internationally until it was time for the 2014 World Cup qualfiers.

No longer allowed the excuse of being a new nation, the pressure was on and the Boys from Bosnia knew they had to perform.

Handed a veritably comfortable group where they would pit it out against, the 3 L’s, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein as well as Slovakia and, you guessed it, old foes Greece, expectations were high.

If it was possible to exceed said expectations, then, they did so. A single loss in 10 games, with 30 goals scored, saw them top the group and advance to the World Cup proper for the first time in their history.

Once there, they faced Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. Going out in the group stages, they did not have a wasted journey with a 3-1 victory over Iran ensuring the faithful had something to celebrate on the lengthy flight home.

It is certainly true that, following their showings at Brazil, there were heightened expectations from back home, with a strong belief that they could well prove to be a strong force to be reckoned with.

That feeling is more than understandable, because when you look down the squad there is talent in abundance; Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begovic, Miralem Pjanic, Muhamed Besic, just to name a few.

ZENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA – NOVEMBER 13. Edin Dzeko (C) and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (R) smile prior the EURO 2016 Qualifier Play-Off First Leg match at Bilino Polje Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

On the face of it, Bosnia are in a good place for the future, but, dig a little deeper and you’ll find a whole sea of disappointing performances from their youth teams.

Most notably, their Under 21’s, where many of the current senior squad honed their skills. The Young Dragons, as they are called, have long been struggling in international competition, winning only 2 of their last 16 competitive matches and, even then, conceding an average of 2 goals a game.

It could be said, then, that the Golden Lillies are merely benefiting from a Golden Generation of talent – the likes of which they may be lucky to see again.

This fear was further compounded by the country’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016 – despite the format accommodating an extra 8 teams. It was hard to see what would be next for this young nation – would they be tenacious and fight back or would they shrink and disappear into the wilderness?

Well, head coach of 4 years, Safet Susic departed in November of 2014 with a win rate of 46%, making him the 3rd most successful manager in their history.

In came, relative unknown, Mehmed Baždarević, who placed an emphasis on developing domestic talent and nurturing young players. Boy, oh boy, has he had an impact, 18 matches played since, if we want to be dramatic, the Baždarević era began, have yielded 10 wins and 4 draws.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s headcoach Mehmed Bazdarevic reacts during the FIFA World Cup 2018 football qualification match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Estonia in Zenica, on September 6, 2016. / AFP / ELVIS BARUKCIC (Photo credit should read ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images)

The first success of his reign? The capturing of the Kirin Cup! Likewise, I’ve never heard of it, but they beat Denmark and Japan as they claimed their first ever trophy. REJOICE!

A new found passion has been discovered, sometimes too much passion, as the boys in blue look to get back in on the big time.

Currently sitting 3rd in their World Cup qualifying group, they are a mere win away from Greece in second and are looking in imperious form.

Can the Dragons roar in Russia?

Oliver McManus

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