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From ‘Humanitarian Stars’ to World Cup hopefuls: The Twenty Year Journey of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Not twenty years after the country was torn apart by a devastating civil war, the Bosnia and Herzegovina national football team is getting ready to compete in its first major international tournament as an independent nation this summer. The team, who qualified top of their group for the Word Cup in Brazil, have come a long way since their first official FIFA recognised friendly against Albania in 1995, just 9 days after the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian War. On that occasion the players wore shirts they had purchased from a neighbouring country’s sports shop just hours before their flight. The transformation has been quite remarkable.

The journey to the main stage of international football has not been an easy one for the team that was initially created to take part in humanitarian friendly matches in 1993 under the name ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina Humanitarian Stars’. A series of disappointing qualification campaigns during the late 1990s and early 2000s marked the teams early history as a footballing nation struggling to find its feet at this level. However, under managers Miroslav Blažević and, more recently, Safet Sušić there has been a marked improvement. The former led them to their first play-off match during the 2010 World Cup qualification campaign where they narrowly missed out on reaching South Africa after a 2-0 aggregate defeat to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Under current coach Safet Sušić, they suffered the same fate missing out on a trip to Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012 after a 6-2 aggregate play-off defeat, again to Portugal. Even their qualification for Brazil 2014 has not been without difficulty with the tragic death of three supporters just hours after victory in Lithuania sealed qualification in October.

On the pitch their path to Brazil has been emphatic, winning 8 out of 10 games and scoring 30 goals in the process to top their group ahead of Greece on Goal Difference. The only debutants in this years tournament, the Balkan side will face tough opposition in Group F in the shape of Lionel Messi and Argentina, African Champions Nigeria and, in a delightfully ironic twist, their final group game will be against Iran, the nation whom they faced in their first unofficial friendly back in 1993.

However, they are not to be underestimated as there is genuine quality throughout the team. They have a solid spine of experienced players in Premier League goalkeeper Asmir Begović, Captain Emir Spahić, who plays in the centre of defence for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, AS Roma’s attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanić and the country’s record goal scorer Edin Džeko, the Manchester City striker who is perhaps the most known national team player. The tall City striker is a proven goal threat and his qualities are well known but it is the diminutive playmaker, Pjanić, who will be the key to unlocking defences and keeping hold of the ball in the heat of Brazil. With a total of 8 goals and 15 assists from his 46 caps Pjanić is maturing into a huge talent, he is the man who makes things happen and can provide the creative spark that will be needed to succeed at international level. When he is on form, the national team plays that much better.

As a side set up to score goals in favour of tighter defensive security they are sure to win the support and adulation of the local Brazilian fans. That is at least until they come up against the Seleção. They will be well supported by their own as well, with thousands having followed their journey to Brazil all across Europe. Once again the eyes of the world will be on Bosnia and Herzegovina and, with the attacking and creative talents allowed to flourish in Sušić’s system, they have a real opportunity to make a lasting impression and finally give Bosnians, Serbs and Croats something to collectively celebrate.

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