Former Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic has overseen a transformation in the fortunes of the Bosnian national side.
By Zdravko Reic
Bosnia, under the guidance of legendary Croatian coach Miroslav “Ciro” Blazevic, have been the surprise team of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. It would be a miracle if they were to qualify for their first international tournament, but such an achievement is not beyond them.
Realistically, Bosnia-Herzegovina – nicknamed the “Lillies” because of their all-white strip – should not have expected to make any impact in the 2010 qualifiers. The country’s domestic football is chaotic, badly organised and has been troubled by scandal in the past.
But they currently lie in second place in European qualifying group five, four points behind Spain but four ahead of third-place Turkey. A place in the 2010 play-offs beckons if they can maintain the form that saw home-an-away wins over Belgium last month.
Bosnia have come close to qualifying before. They needed to beat Denmark in Sarajevo to reach Euro 2004 but the game ended 1-1. And they finished third behind Serbia and Spain in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup.
When they came up short again in the campaign to reach the Euro 2008 finals, local supporters accused the players of wanting to line their own pockets. And so Bosnia turned to Blazevic, the Croatian-born coach who had taken his country to third place at the 1998 World Cup.
A few of the senior players – Faruk Hadzibegic, Mehmed Bazdarevic, Vahid Halilhodzic – raised their concerns about the new coach in public. His Croatian nationalist credentials would be a problem, they said, not least because Blazevic had claimed at the time of Yugoslavia’s breakdown that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be divided up.
But Blazevic has charmed the Bosnic public. The results of his team have helped, too, especially the 7-0 victory over Estonia in the opening game of the qualifying campaign. Away defeats to Spain and Turkey have not dimmed the optimism, either. Especially the wins over Belgium (4-2 in Genk, 2-1 in Zenica) have put Bosnia in strong position.
Blazevic has been optimistic from the start. “Only I can take Bosnia to the World Cup,” he boasted.
However, the reality is that he has a good crop of players, including the Wolfsburg forward Edin Dzeko, the scorer of three goals in two games against the Belgians.
“Alen Boksic was a miraculous player,” Blazevic says. “But Dzeko is stronger. In fact, Dzeko is better than Ibrahimovic.”
Such statements have endeared Blazevic to the Bosnian people, who seem prepared to forget his past, as a close friend of the late Croatian dictator, Franco Tudjman, with whom he would speak before every important Croatian international.
As national coach, Blazevic enjoys the support from the leaders of all three entities in Bosnia (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) as well as from the UN’s special representative, Valentin Inzko.
As well as achieving the almost impossible feat of uniting the country, Blazevic has made the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina believe that the Lillies are on the verge of something special.