World Cup: How Bosnia found winning team

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Bosnia's Edin Visca (in white) plays in Turkey - and most of his team-mates also play far from home

Bosnia-Hercegovina make their World Cup debut with a tough match against Argentina.

But the Balkan country devastated by war in the 1990s will not unite behind the talented national team, the BBC's Guy Delauney reports from Sarajevo.

Ivica Osim did not plan to be the last-ever coach of a united Yugoslavia.

He led his team to the quarter-finals of Italia '90, where they lost to the eventual finalists, Argentina. They also qualified handily for the 1992 European Championship.

But as war engulfed the Balkans, Yugoslavia were ejected from the tournament before they so much as kicked a ball. Their last-minute replacements, Denmark, famously went on to win the Henri Delaunay trophy.

"I must say, I'm still proud that I was the manager of Yugoslavia," says Osim.

"But it was not my idea to be the last manager - I didn't know. If I had known, I wouldn't have gone to Italy and all that. I would have stayed at home - it would have been much better."

Home was Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, where Osim was born. He is now living in the city again after a successful coaching career in Greece, Austria and Japan.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Ivica Osim had a spell as Japan national team coach

Alive and kicking

But in 1992, as Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Serb forces battled for control of the area, Sarajevo came under siege. For Osim, it was his cue to walk away from the coaching job he loved.

"At that time, it was the only thing I could do. No-one made an effort for Bosnia. Europe and the whole world let us fall. We were alone, we had nothing, we were attacked. It's difficult to talk about these things. Now it's time to give a sign that Bosnia is still alive."

Alive and kicking, in fact - at least on the football field.

After several campaigns of near-misses and play-off defeats, Bosnia took no chances this time, blasting 30 goals in their 10 qualifying matches to take top spot and a guaranteed place in Brazil.

But if it had not been for Ivica Osim, Bosnia might not even have been eligible for the tournament. Three years ago, bickering among the country's three main ethnic groups left the country's football association on the brink of expulsion from Fifa.

In 2011 Fifa and Uefa suspended Bosnia-Hercegovina from international competitions for two months - until the country brought its football association into line with Fifa rules.

Osim has always refused ethnic labelling - and so he was the perfect candidate to become the interim leader of the association. He whipped the organisation back into shape - setting the stage for Edin Dzeko and his team-mates to play some of the most compelling football of any of the qualifiers.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, The Bosnia squad is based at Guaruja, a seaside resort not far from Sao Paulo

Ethnic divisions

"The only good thing to come from the war was that a lot of players went abroad, learned a lot and became real professionals," says Osim. "Now the team has shown how good it can be. We'll see what happens."

The team coach at the World Cup is Safet Susic. He used to be a star player for Paris Saint-Germain and Yugoslavia.

It is tempting for an outsider to believe that Bosnia's World Cup participation could be a source of unity in a country which still suffers from serious divisions among the ethnic groups. But in some places football only serves to accentuate the differences - and even the world's biggest tournament is unlikely to change that.

Bosniaks will cheer on Bosnia - as they did throughout the qualifying campaign. But ethnic Croats are far more likely to shout for Croatia. And even though Serbia failed to qualify, ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia are unlikely to shift their allegiance to their "home" team.

"It's totally bizarre," says Marjan Mijajlovic, whose distinctively hoarse commentary accompanied the national side's qualification campaign on Bosnian television.

He is something of a rarity - a Bosnian Serb who actually supports Bosnia and a much-loved figure among fans of the team. With some bemusement he notes that while Serbia's top sportsman, Novak Djokovic, has promised to cheer for Bosnia, his example is unlikely to be followed in ethnic Serb-majority areas like Banja Luka.

"Lots of famous people from Serbia have said they will support Bosnia in the absence of their team - but not Serbs who live in Bosnia. They might change their minds - but slowly, very slowly."

But at least in the capital, Sarajevo, the atmosphere should be spectacular when Bosnia make a midnight kick-off against Argentina. There will be all the accoutrements of a modern World Cup experience in this old city, which has served for centuries as a crossroads of faiths and nationalities - big screens, football parties, Panini sticker-swap meets.

With Nigeria and Iran also in their group, it will be hard for Bosnia to qualify for the second phase. But whatever happens to the team, Ivica Osim believes there is cause for at least a little optimism.

"The only team that works in this country is the football team. It is, in effect, Bosnia's brand. It has brought us an enormous amount of good and a spirit that we haven't known until now."

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