Bosnia: A Troubled Path To Footballing Acceptance

Asmir Begovic, Haris Medunjanin

This article was first published in issue four of The Football Pink. To order a copy now visit or follow @thefootballpink on Twitter

In a scene replicated the world over a group of young boys playing football outside their homes are called in by their mothers. Normally they’re called in for their evening meal, to do their homework or because it’s their bedtime. This time its different, Edin was called in by his mother due to what she later recalled as a ”gut reaction which saved my son’s life”. Moments later in the same spot where the boys were playing football, a mortar shell fired by a besieging army lands and obliterates the waste ground where they were playing. This is life in Sarajevo in the early 1990’s, the cruel paradox of people trying to go about their daily business of commuting, socialising and playing football in the midst of snipers, shells and scavenging for food. Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs who is now on trial in the Hague for war crimes, once forecast that the state of Bosnia would be “stillborn”, but this year on Sunday 15 June Bosnia and Herzegovina will compete in its first ever World Cup finals.

Yugoslavia’s existence was always fragile. A melting pot of differing religions, ethnicities and historical allegiances were held together in the years following World War II by Marshall Josep Tito, whose policy of Brotherhood & Unity formed the glue which bound the fragile country together. The rise of Slobodan Milosevic following the death of Tito brought about a growing sense of nationalism amongst some of the republics which made up Yugoslavia. Slovenia, following a brief war gained its independence in 1991 and Croatia followed its path of self determination by declaring independence in the same year, but having to fight for it in a war lasting until 1995. Bosnia & Herzegovina declared its independence in 1992 and fought a brutal three year war to achieve its goal too.

The main ethnic make up of Bosnia is a majority Muslim population (Bosniaks), followed by smaller but significant populations of Serbs and Croats. Bosniaks wished for full independence, Bosnian Serbs wished to stay part of Yugoslavia (dominated by Serb nationalists in Belgrade) and Bosnian Croats who wished for greater relations with Croatia. In a conflict which had little respect for rules of engagement, over 100,000 combatants and civilians died. The delicate political landscape after the war had Bosnia as an independent nation carved into two main regional areas, the Serb Republika Srpska which covered mainly Eastern and Northern Bosnia and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina made up of ethnic Croats and Bosniaks covering central and Western Bosnia.

Both during the war itself and in the years between independence and Bosnia’s qualification for the World Cup, football has been used in the country as both a tool for dividing and uniting the three main ethnic groups. As early as December 1992 in the early stages of the war, the Republika Srpska organised a football match against the Republika Srpska Krajina (Serb territory in Croatia). The message was clear, Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia did not wish to be part of any self determination which involved splitting away from Serb dominated Yugoslavia and football was the vehicle for delivering that message.

In 1994 a weekly sports newspaper called Derbi was published. Its aim was to legitimise the political status of the two Republika Srpska areas, part of its mission statement read that both Serb civilians and soldiers “know that today they need sport more than ever”. The second issue was praised by the Republika Srpska FA who declared that Derbi was supplying “an immeasurable contribution to the establishment of Republika Srpska”. Derbi also carried regular interviews with Republika Srpska sportsmen serving on the front line.

Even after Bosnia’s independence football was used as a tool for nationalist divisions. The city of Mostar in the South West of the country had a pre war ethnic make up of 35% Muslim and 34% Croat and was liberated from the Yugoslav army by a joint Croat/Bosnian operation in June 1992. The two sides however turned on each other and after the war Croats occupied the Western half of the city whilst Muslims occupied the Eastern half. The city has two clubs, Velez Mostar and Zrinjski. Velez has been traditionally seen as a club which encompasses all three ethnic groups though more recently it has been claimed more by the Muslim population of the city. Zrinjski were banned between 1945 and 1992 by the Yugoslav authorities. They were seen as a nationalist beacon in the region, they had played in the football league set up during Croatia’s brief independence during World War Two and this did not sit well with Tito’s Brotherhood & Unity policy. The club name has Croatian nationalist connotations and its badge features the distinctive red and white chequered Sahovnica emblem

Matches between Velez and Zrinjski are focal points for local Muslims and Croats to clash. Nationalist agendas in school curricula and poor economic prospects have led to increased division between the two groups. Away fans meet at pre-designated points to be given a police escort to the match, though even this cannot prevent nationalist songs being sung and flags being unfurled; “Over there, I never go there, there’re only Muslims. Me, my country, is Croatia.” One Zrinjski fans quips.

Amongst these threats, rival faction and antagonism the Bosnian national team took its first tentative steps. In November 1995, just days after the Dayton Peace Accord was signed, they played their first FIFA recognised match in Albania (other unofficial games had taken place during the war), but even getting there was no mean feat. The squad gathered in the Croatian capital of Zagreb and decided that it was too risky so soon after the war finished to take the more direct route to Albania which was through Serbia and Montenegro. Also only eight players turned up and none of them had any kit meaning a detour to a Zagreb sports shop. Their first coach, Fuad Muzurovic, recognised that despite these difficulties in both logistics and personnel, the match had to go ahead if Bosnia was ever to achieve its manifest destiny of FIFA recognition and international acceptance.

FIFA recognition came in 1996 and by the time of qualification for Euro 2004, had a team worthy of competing as they only narrowly missed out on a play off spot as they failed to beat Denmark in their final qualifying fixture. Another near miss occurred when trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Two draws against Spain (including suffering a 96th minute equaliser in Spain despite only having nine men) and historic matches against Serbia & Montenegro were not enough to reach the play off places.

From 2007 the next generation of Bosnian footballers began to make their impact upon the national team and each had their own story to tell regarding the impact of the war upon their childhood. Asmir Begovic fled from Bosnia as a four year old to Canada via Germany, Sejad Salihović who also fled to Germany with his family just before the start of the war and more recently Miralem Pjanic the son of a former footballer. Pjanic’s family tried to flee the country before the outbreak of the war but found their way blocked by the red tape of his fathers club, Drina Zvornik. The family only received permission after Pjanic’s mother pleaded with the club for permission to travel. Baby Miralem began to cry and it was only at that point that the club official relented and granted permission and they travelled to Luxembourg.
The team reached the play offs for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, losing to Portugal on both occasions. There was a real sense though that qualification for a major tournament was when rather than if and on 15 October last year, the dream became a reality as a 1-0 victory away to Lithuania guaranteed qualification for this years World Cup.

But after so much bloodshed, division and antagonism, of which football has played a part, what does the forthcoming World Cup mean to the country? Is it something for just one ethnic group to celebrate, or can this be a unifying point for all Bosnians regardless of ethnicity?

Upon qualifying an estimated 50,000 people packed the streets of Sarajevo to celebrate, it even united the notoriously partisan politicians. Denis Becirevic, Speaker of the parliamentary house in Sarajevo said “The national team has shown us all how to achieve results, not just in sports but in any field”, other officials also voiced their approval that the team’s achievement is an example to future generations of Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs were more muted in their celebrations (they tend to follow the Serb national team who failed to qualify) although they did take time to congratulate the Bosnian team and players; Emil Vlajki, Vice President of Bosnian Serbs proclaimed “All I have to say is bravo, bravo, bravo”.

The ethnic make up of the team has evolved over time too. Originally the national team was made up predominantly of Bosniaks, though over time members of the team have come from an increasingly diverse background. Miroslav Stevanovic is an ethnic Serb, Boris Pandza an ethnic Croat and current captain Emir Spahic is a Bosniak born in Croatia. Whilst it may be accurate to say that Bosnian Serbs follow the Serb national team, Croats the Croatian team and Bosniaks the Bosnian team, that is rather simplistic too. Goran Obradovic a Serb journalist in the main Republika Srpska city of Banja Luka watched Bosnia qualify in a bar filled with young people and “After the win there were no celebrations to speak of, but compared to the past we can see a trend of more and more Serbs cheering on the Bosnian national team.”

Outside agencies have helped to foster the emerging togetherness between the main ethnic groups. Initiatives like Football Against Racism in Europe and Open Fun Football Schools look at having multi ethnic football teams and matches. The hope is that if the younger generation of people in Bosnia can be given a collective consciousness then future World Cup qualifications can gradually encompass more of the people within the country.

July 13 is the day of the World Cup final. On the same date in 1995 Ratko Mladic, currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes committed during the Bosnian War, addressed 2000 Muslim men at a football field in Nova Kasaba in Eastern Bosnia. He told them they were to be placed on buses as part of an exchange with other groups. Instead those men were then led out of the ground and executed as part of the Srebrenica Massacre during which 8000 Bosniak men and boys were executed. Bosnian football has come a long way in twenty years, from mass executions near football fields, to the national team buying their kit from a local shop to World Cup qualification. Young Edin Dzeko, whom was nearly caught in a mortar explosion simply because he was a young boy wanting to play football one afternoon in Sarajevo, could lead the line in that World Cup final. If you think that dream is far fetched and that simply being at the World Cup is as much as Bosnia can hope for, just look at where they have come from.


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