While the English media began cranking up the well turned and oiled wheel of national hysteria in time for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, they overlooked a truly momentous event that took place the same night – an event that transcended football.
Tiny Bosnia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina to give it its full title, qualified for its first ever World Cup. The remarkable achievement came with victory over Lithuania in front of 10,000 travelling fans, with many more watching on big screens in cities like Sarajevo and Mostar.
The local football club in Sarajevo, FK Željezničar, play at a fairly unassuming stadium, the Grbavica, which is nestled into the hills of Bosnia’s capital city. To look at it now, it does exactly what it says on the tin: four stands, pitch, floodlights and goal posts. If you were to look at a photo of it from 1992, however, you would see something completely unnatural. Burned stands, a pitch chewed up by mortar fire and destroyed lighting. The stadium fell on the front line between Bosnian Serb forces and Sarajevo’s defenders during the war of the early 1990s. When the conflict finally ended the pitch had to be cleared of mines that had been left by the Serbs.
That is just one fleeting example from the catalogue of woes that is part of the collective memory of many Bosnians; this is a nation that has been formed in the fires of one of the greatest human tragedies ever to have taken place. Football was quite rightly an afterthought when the Bosnian people started piecing their nation back together again. It is still a reflection of the tensions within Bosnian society that the football federation requires three presidents – a Bosnian Muslim, Serb and Croat – to make sure everyone’s insecurities and interests are taken care of. But the “miracle of Vilnius”, as the national football paper Sport christened yesterday’s events, can only be viewed as a major moment within the Bosnian national consciousness.
Here was a team of talented individuals, some of them from Muslim, Croat and Serb backgrounds, as well as from the wider Bosnian diaspora such as goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, coming together and winning under their flag. Watching their coach Safet Susic and their emblematic striker Edin Dzeko near tears as they took part in an improvised party in Sarajevo’s main square was a genuinely tear jerking moment. Having watched countless documentaries and read countless books about what happened to Sarajevo in the 1990s I felt compelled to applaud this brief moment in the sun for a country that still frequently becomes bogged down in squabbling between different ethnic groups. Footballers are not often role models, but Bosnia’s leaders, who have presided over the collapse of an economy and an unemployment rate of 28%, could look to their national team for a lesson in working for the common good.
The World Cup will only be enriched by a team that plays wonderfully attacking football and is stocked to the gunnels with talented players. This Bosnian side play in the wonderful tradition of Balkan football, which was exquisitely showcased by Red Star Belgrade’s European Cup winning side of 1991. Many then felt that the Yugoslavian national team would go on to conquer the world. The course of history meant they never had the chance. Bosnia now have the opportunity to show the whole world what a wonderful style of football that beguiling part of Europe can produce.
Moreover, it is a moment to think on how far this still-fragile nation has come. When the band strikes up to play the opening bars of the Bosnian national anthem at whatever stadium they walk out to in Brazil, there should not be a dry eye in the house.