A divided country has been brought together by an incredible World Cup qualifying campaign.
Peterjon Cresswell in Sarajevo
Argentina’s demise? England’s revival? North Korea’s qualification? Surely the most remarkable story from the qualifying phase of World Cup 2010 is the miracle of Bosnia. Miroslav Blazevic’s side only need a win in Tallinn against Estonia to assure a play-off place as runners-up in Group 5, making their last game at home to European champions Spain a warm-up for the final two-leg hurdle.
Only a FIFA member since 1996, the fledging nation of Bosnia & Herzegovina, which was devastated by a gruesome civil war, remains fractured by ethnic divides. But football has brought the nation together; a collective phenomenon personified by the passionate atmosphere around the narrow pitch at the Bilino Polje in provincial Zenica.
Unlike the open bowl of the national Kosevo Stadium in Sarajevo, which is surrounded by cemeteries, Zenica is fierce and compact. It was here, in September, that Bosnia pulled back an early goal by Emre to draw 1-1 with their nearest rivals Turkey, the tension around the ground lifted by a splendid free-kick in the 25th minute by Hoffenheim’s Sejad Salihovic. The crowd roared the players on until the very last minute, and at final whistle the relief was palpable as everyone’s thoughts immediately turned to Tallinn.
Coach Miroslav Blazevic – “only I can take Bosnia to the World Cup” – had written himself another chapter in footballing folklore. This is the same seemingly ageless man who is wily, superstitious, diplomatic – and who wore a French policeman’s kepi while leading Croatia to third place at the 1998 World Cup. Ten years later, he was hired by a debt-ridden Bosnian FA, in disarray over the controversial dismissal of coach Mehmed Kodro, to lead an unlikely World Cup campaign in a qualifying group featuring Spain, Turkey and Belgium.
As always, the stars favoured “Ciro”. Although they lost in Spain, and then a little later in Turkey, Blazevic’s side rallied as its key players began to shine in Germany’s Bundesliga. As the season unfolded, Vedad Ibisevic began scoring a hatful of goals for then-league leaders Hoffenheim, whose midfield also featured Salihovic of the rocket free-kick.
As that particular miracle waned with Ibisevic’s injury before the winter break, a tall, agile striker by the name of Edin Dzeko started to make headlines with Felix Magath’s Wolfsburg as he and South American strike partner Grafite began to notch more goals between them than Bayern Munich back in Gerd Muller’s day.
Again, the Wolfsburg midfield starred a Bosnian, Zvjezdan Misimovic, who would clock up the season’s best number of assists and lead Magath’s men to an unlikely league title.
But it was Sarajevo-born Dzeko, 23 years old and nearly 6ft 4in tall, who broke onto the world stage one night in Genk. Bosnia went to Cristal Arena to take on Belgium in the first of two matches between the countries last Easter. Out of the blue, a seventh-minute strike by Dzeko took the wind out of the hosts’ sails. Tails up, and roared on by Bosnians who had gathered in Genk from across Europe, it began to rain goals.
Flares from Bosnian fans stopped the game, requiring Blazevic to personally go around the touchline and urge restraint, but when the smoke cleared, Bosnia had won 4-2 and Group 5 had been turned on its head.
Another tense night in Zenica – and two more goals from Dzeko – saw Zlatni Ljiljani (the Golden Lilies) win the home game 2-1 and set themselves up for the autumn run-in.