Susic's Bosnic squad a unifying force among old divisions
Politically Bosnia remains divided among two entities -- the Croats and Muslims
Historical division within the Bosnia team and with its federation
Coach Safet Susic has continued where predecessor Ciro Blazevic left off
The smell of wood smoke hangs pungent in the early morning mist. As the cafe owners set up for the day, and old men, huddled against the cold, begin another session of backgammon in the courtyard of the mosque, the call of the muezzin echoes through the cobbled streets. On a corner on the square in front of the national library, a stall-holder sets out his wares. He has green Wolfsburg shirts, but today is not a day for club soccer. He slides hangers through the necks of two blue Bosnia shirts and hooks them over the rail that holds up the canopy over his stall. The back of each shirt is to the square so you can see the name and number. The left reads "Dzeko;" the right "Misimovic": Muslim and Serb side by side.
That was in 2009, before Bosnia's World Cup qualifier against Turkey. It was a time of great national optimism -- at least where soccer was concerned; in Zenica that night, there was a feeling that this was a one-off, the sort of crazy campaign that could never be repeated and should be enjoyed while it lasted. Everybody was bedecked in blue-and-yellow: I even saw a group of women wearing hijab made of Bosnian flags. Bosnia drew 1-1 that night, good enough to keep it on course for a playoff that it eventually lost to Portugal.
Everybody knew who was responsible for their rise: the septuagenarian demagogue Ciro Blazevic, the man who had led Croatia to the semifinal of the 1998 World Cup. It is easy to be cynical about Blazevic and his showmanship -- for the Turkey game, he delayed his entrance, and then emerged two or three minutes after his team, wearing a white jacket over a black shirt, so he could walk alone to the dugout, lapping up the applause -- but what he achieved with Bosnia was astonishing.
The previous summer, Meho Kodro, the former Barcelona striker, had been sacked as coach because he refused to lead the team to Tehran for what he saw as a pointless end-of-season friendly against Iran. Fatigued players, sick of what they saw as interference from the Bosnian football federation (NSBiH), supported him, and so too did the public, especially when the Iranians let slip that they were paying Bosnia a $300,000 match fee. The NSBiH had said they would receive $120,000. It had been asked why they were so set on playing the game: suddenly it became apparent that certain members of their committee had $180,000 very good reasons. "Ridiculous," said Kodro's assistant Elvir Bolic. "This is just another farce perpetrated by individuals who are taking Bosnian football nowhere."
As 19 players effectively went on strike, the youth coach, Denijel Piric, put together a side for a friendly against Azerbaijan by driving around Sarajevo knocking on the doors of players he knew, asking if any of them fancied a game. A local meeting his girlfriend for an ice-cream at the hotel where the team happened to be staying had a key pressed into his hand and was harangued for being late by the kit-man, who mistook him for one of the new call-ups. Fans boycotted the game, leaving 250 security personnel looking after 150 spectators. It was chaos.
Blazevic admitted he was unsure about taking the job. "At first I refused to come to Bosnia," he said. "They insulted me. They offered me the same salary as Kodro had, but I have as many titles as Kodro is years old. But then some people told me that I am not only on a sports mission but also on a political mission, and that was the main reason I decided to come to Bosnia.
"I like the people very much and I like my roots. I am Bosnian. I am on a mission to bring peace among the people. We are too small a country to be divided. In my team, everybody likes each other, and I'm their dad. I am very proud that I can bring the people together in a way the politicians cannot. But my mission depends on results."
That was no mean ambition. Everywhere you go in Bosnia, there are reminders of the war. The Grbavica Stadium, where Bosnia trains, lay on the front line during the siege. When FK Zeljeznicar returned there after the war, its first task was to clear mines off the pitch. Although everyday life goes on more or less as before, politically it remains divided into two entities -- the Croats and Muslims on one hand, and the Serbs on the other. Just how deep those differences run was made clear after the Turkey game as nine people were stabbed in Mostar in clashes between celebrating Bosnia fans and Bosnian Croat fans distraught at Croatia's 5-1 defeat at Wembley the same night.
No player has been unaffected by the conflict. Dzeko, for instance, was six when it began and, after his house was destroyed, he and the rest of his family had to share a one-bedroom flat belonging to his grandparents. The Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic was born in Trebinje in the south of the country. His parents fled the war to Germany, and then moved to Canada when he was 10.
And there were ethnic tensions in the squad. Under the force of Blazevic's personality, though, those distinctions disappeared. "Blazevic has brought this team all together," Dzeko said. "Whether I am Muslim or Croat or Serb it's no problem." It helped, of course, that he and Misimovic played together with such effect at Wolfsburg.
After the playoff defeat to Portugal, when Bosnia, having been unfortunate to lose 1-0 in Lisbon were listless and flat in going down by the same score line in Zenica, it seemed the dream was over. Blazevic went to China. Dzeko and Misimovic both left Wolfsburg. And yet, somehow, under Safet Susic, the dream has stayed alive.
Actually, logically, it was always likely to. Dzeko is only 25. Miralem Pjanic is 21. Haris Medunjanin is 26. Senijad Ibricic is also 26. Yes, Elvir Rahimic is now 35, but essentially Blazevic's team was still on the way up. It's just that he's a man who defies logic so habitually you sort of forget it exists when you're in his presence. Had it held a one-goal lead in France in its final qualifier, it would already be at the European Championship. As it was, with 11 minutes to go, it conceded a penalty that Samir Nasri converted, and so on Friday it again faces a playoff against Portugal.
Blazevic's Bosnia was based on emotion; in Paris, Susic's side looked a coherent unit. It was better balanced, the switch to a back four from Blazevic's preferred back three and the use of Rahimic and Medunjanin giving them a solidity that allowed three creators to be deployed behind the free-roaming Dzeko. The question is whether Bosnia can handle Cristiano Ronaldo -- for Portugal, probably to its detriment, is increasingly Ronaldo and 10 others -- and psychologically whether Susic can pick up a side that was within 11 minutes of its first qualification for a tournament.
But there is also a deeper question, which is how long this can be sustained, and what the impact outside of soccer may be. In a country still fractured by the war, soccer is just about the only sphere in which Serbs, Croats and Muslims mix freely; the national team the only body that draws genuine cross-community support. Zenica is a predominantly Muslim area, but after the game against Turkey, fans sang the name of the Bosnian-Serb goalkeeper who had kept the score at 1-1. "When they are chanting 'Nemanja' for our goalkeeper Supic," Blazevic said, "that's my biggest victory."
Begovic has supplanted Supic now, but Blazevic's victory is still going on.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.