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Can Blazevic work his magic for Bosnia?

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Phil Minshull | 09:30 UK time, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Is history about to repeat itself? Is Miroslav the Magician about to wave his wand again and guide another unheralded team, this time Bosnia-Hercegovina, through to the World Cup finals?

The bespectacled septuagenarian coach Miroslav Blazevic - born in Bosnia to a Croatian family in 1935, before what became modern Yugoslavia was even on the map - has taken Bosnia to unprecedented heights in the past 16 months, and they are just one step away from booking their place in South Africa.

When the mildly eccentric Blazevic - widely known as Ciro - who went through most of the 1998 World Cup when he was in charge of Croatia wearing his lucky charm of a French policeman's hat, signed up for the job in July last year, it looked like being a poisoned chalice.

Most people, including myself, thought it was going to be his final job in the game, a position he'd only taken on because of his family history.

The previous Bosnia coach, the former Real Sociedad and Barcelona striker Meho Kodro, had just been fired after refusing to take charge of the team on a trip to Iran, and relations between the players and the federation were rocky, to say the least.

Edin Dzeko (right) and Miroslav Blazevic

However, Blazevic has used all his renowned diplomatic skills to smooth out the problems and got his players focused, with the target being qualification for the World Cup finals for the first time, just 17 years after Bosnian independence.

It's been no easy task for Blazevic.

Sticking to the football facts for the moment, the 26-man squad he called up last Thursday for the two World Cup play-off games against Portugal, firstly in Lisbon on Saturday and then back to Zenica the following Wednesday, takes in a Bosnian footballing diaspora who play in 13 different countries, with none of them actually at a Bosnian club.

Of course, ever since they secured a place in the play-offs, the world has been wanting to know just what the special ingredient Blazevic has provided that has turned Bosnia-Hercegovina into such a potent outfit over the last year. They won six of their last eight World Cup games to finish behind Spain in their group.

"The biggest point in our favour is our unity and determination as a team. We're a band of brothers, and we get along really well with one another," said Edin Dzeko, who plys his trade at German champions Wolfsburg and who is arguably one of Europe's top strikers on current form.

Reading between the lines, especially in the context of Bosnia's horrendous civil war in the 1990s, Blazevic has proved himself to be as much of a master at psychology as a football tactician. He has succeeded in bringing together players from disparate and potentially hostile ethnic backgrounds.

Having seen most of their recent matches because of being in the same group as Spain, albeit on television, I can attest to their team work and desire, that indefinable never-say-die attitude which is being broadly termed as 'unity'.

This a very similar story to when Blazevic was in charge of Croatia a decade ago, memorably steering them to an outstanding third place at the 1998 World Cup, and only going out to the hosts and eventual winners France in the semis after hammering the Germany of Klinsmann and Matthaus 3-0 in the quarter-finals.

And who knows what could have happened if Zvonimir Boban hadn't had a woeful off-day, or Goran Vlaovic hadn't his rasping potential equaliser just tipped over the bar by Fabien Barthez well into injury time.

Just like with Croatia, emerging from the smouldering embers of its own place in the
Balkan inferno of the early 1990s, the success of Blazevic's men has inevitably also been a tonic for the country, at home and abroad.

In contrast to many European countries where following a country to away fixtures in droves is generally not too popular or practical, as Lisbon will no doubt witness, Bosnia-Hercegovina have a loyal and noisy group of fans at every match.

The United Nations have estimated that during the civil war more than two million Bosnians were forced to flee their homes.

Many fled to other countries and there are now ex-patriot Bosnians spread right the way across Europe, perversely now providing the team with enthusiastic backing wherever they play.

"Never in my career have I had such a significant match in front of me. For us, there is big pressure, high expectations from the fans. We must not disappoint them," said Blazevic.

In contrast to Portugal, who have seemed racked with a lack of confidence throughout much of the qualifiers, Bosnia-Hercegovina seem to ooze self-belief despite some limitations to their talent at the back and with nine players on a yellow card.

"These are the kind of games in which you have to play above your limits if you want to win. Hence, I expect nothing less than maximum effort from each individual, and I don't expect any of them to have a psychological block over a yellow card, anyone who does will be written off for the national team," he added last week, brandishing both the whip and the carrot.

"We have to get a good result in Lisbon even if it means we are crippled in the return leg."

Shortening the odds of the Bosnian fairytale continuing, Portugal will probably be without Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, who is still suffering from an ankle injury despite Carlos Queiroz insisting on calling him up, a move which is widely suspected to have been designed to outrage Real president Florentino Perez who sacked him when the Portugal coach was in the Spanish capital.

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