There’s always something of a novelty about a new nation qualifying for the World Cup. This time, the sole debutants are Bosnia-Herzegovina, who reached the Promised Land by topping Group G in UEFA Qualifying, ahead of Greece on goal difference.
Bosnia, who have only been a member of FIFA since 1996, topped their group and thus avoided the dreaded play-offs, where they were narrowly defeated by Portugal prior to the last tournament in South Africa. For a small country with a population of under four million, it is a colossal achievement, especially considering that, twenty years ago, the nation was embroiled in a long, bloody civil war, with its roots deeply entrenched in complex ethnic divides.
However, Safet Susic’s men, in qualifying for football’s showpiece tournament, have helped to change the international perception of a nation which is embedded between the two traditional footballing powers of the area, Croatia and Serbia. Type ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina’ into Google and the first suggestion that comes up, inevitably, is ‘War’. The second? ‘Football Team.’
Bosnia’s recent success is, in large part, down to their star players featuring in some of Europe’s top leagues. Top scorer Edin Dzeko, who scored 10 goals in qualifying, is undoubtedly their best-known player, having featured for English champions Manchester City. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic plies his trade for Stoke, whilst Miralem Pjanic has been integral to Roma’s recent renaissance under Rudi Garcia.
However, the national team has also benefitted, in a way, from the infamous war. Of course, it is impossible to take positives from a conflict which resulted in the loss of over 100,000 lives, yet the displacement it caused has, strangely, reaped rewards for Bosnian football. Over half of Bosnia’s 23-man squad began their club careers outside of the country. The result is a multicultural, almost extra-national flavour to the squad. Pjanic and Begovic played for Luxembourg and Canada at youth level. Forward Vedad Ibisevic began his footballing education in the United States. Winger Izet Hajrovic even played a friendly for Switzerland in 2012 before finalising his allegiances. There is a strong German connection too, through youngsters like Sead Kolasinac and Muhamed Besic, born in Germany to Bosniak parents.
Coach Safet Susic, arguably the greatest Bosnian footballer of all time, has brought the Bosnian diaspora together, harnessing their variety of playing styles into a system that reflects his own footballing mantra of attacking football. The Dragons stormed their way through qualifying, scoring 30 goals in 10 games and putting sides such as Liechtenstein, Latvia and Lithuania to the sword.
It is clear, however, that the World Cup is another challenge completely. Recent friendly defeats to Argentina, Egypt and the United States have proved that Bosnia have a long way to go before they emulate neighbours Croatia in becoming a top international side. However, Bosnia retain a certain aura of surprise; not many supporters will have watched them play. What can we expect from them in Brazil?
The core of the side is well-established, with five or six seasoned internationals used to playing against the very best the world has to offer. Begovic has had arguably his most impressive season for Stoke, regularly saving the necks of an uncharacteristically shaky Potters defence, often shorn of its mainstays, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross. Begovic even managed a goal, against Southampton, and has had many a bigger side interested. For country, he features behind 33 year-old captain Emir Spahic, for whom Brazil will probably be an international swansong. Spahic has played for Montpellier, Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen, and his experience is vital for the Dragons, especially considering the berth beside him is contested by three or four unconvincing candidates.
In midfield, Bosnia are relatively rich in terms of talent. In Pjanic, they have one of the best 100 footballers in the world, according to the Guardian. Slightly further forward is Zvjezdan Misimovic, Bosnia’s most capped footballer. Though advancing in years, Misimovic is still the side’s key playmaker, and has a history of playing with Dzeko, for whom he provided 20 assists in Wolfsburg’s 2008-09 Bundesliga-winning campaign. Age has proved no obstacle to the likes of Carlos Valderrama and Dragan Stojkovic in the past, and Susic will be hoping history repeats itself.
However, it is surely up front where Bosnia are at their best. Dzeko and Ibisevic shared 18 of the sides 30 goals in qualifying, although it remains to be seen whether Susic will play them both together, especially against superior footballing sides such as Argentina.
The main concern for the Dragons looks to be the lack of squad depth. Aside from the aforementioned spine, Salid Salihovic and Senad Lulic play for strong club sides. After this, the team is largely inexperienced, and almost a third of the squad did not even feature in qualifying. Centre-back, with Ervin Zukanovic dropped, and Ermin Bicakcic injured, is a worry, as is a Plan B up top if Dzeko and Ibisevic lose form. The midfield is also a little unbalanced; Salihovic, Pjanic and Misimovic are great going forward, but the side lacks a classic, gritty defensive midfielder. Besic and the more creative Haris Medunjanin will compete for this slot, but neither will really cause Argentina, or Iran and Nigeria for that matter, too many sleepless nights.
Susic will perhaps look to employ both defensive midfielders against Bosnia’s first opponents, Argentina. Pragmatism in terms of tactics is often key for Susic, as Bosnia tend not to stick to one formation; variations of 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 have been used in qualifying. Memories of Serbia’s shellacking by Jose Pekerman’s side in 2006 will be fresh in minds, and a bolstered midfield is the obvious option to counter the threat of Messrs Di Maria, Gago and Messi. It is a baptism of fire for the Dragons, and one from which they will probably emerge scarred, leaving the games against Nigeria (21st June) and Iran (25th June) as vital.
It is a relatively open group, and these match-ups are hard to call. If Dzeko and Ibisevic can replicate their qualifying form, it is hard to see Nigeria’s ageing defence coping. Iran, inexperienced as they are, will be no more so than Bosnia, and although the Dragons have been spared a Group of Death, qualification is by no means a given. If they do edge through, a second round game against Switzerland or France could be the reward.
Countries from the former Yugoslavia have had a fairly fruitless time at World Cups. Since Croatia’s third place finish in 1998, they, along with Serbia (twice) and Slovenia (twice) have failed to emerge from the group stage. The odds, it would seem, are stacked against the newest challengers.
However, the long-suffering people of Bosnia will not care. They are in a World Cup for the first time, and Susic, the last Bosnian to score in the competition, back in 1990 for Yugoslavia, is a perfect figure to lead them into it. With perhaps one of the most passionate sets of supporters in Europe, do not be surprised if we see parties on the streets of Sarajevo, Mostar and Zenica before the month is out.