The BiH football team's qualification for the World Cup is an accomplishment that is resonating in the sports world and beyond.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 13/06/14
BiH striker Edin Dzeko (right) takes a shot between Mexico defenders Hector Moreno (left) and Diego Reyes (centre) during an international friendly on June 3rd in Chicago. [AFP]
"Dragons in heart, Dragons on the field," is the slogan that the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) national football team has adopted as it plays in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
After several unsuccessful attempts, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time is a monumental achievement for the small nation. However, the Dragons have grander plans in mind.
"We are not going to Brazil simply as tourists or to take notes. We want to succeed and advance," BiH manager Safet Susic told reporters during preparations for the tournament.
More than half the BiH squad that will play in the country's first World Cup finals were born or raised abroad, children of some of the estimated 1 million citizens who escaped the 1990s conflict that claimed the lives of roughly 100,000 people and devastated the country.
Officials emphasised that building up this team was a difficult job, but at the end, they succeeded.
"This is a generation that created the game out of nothing," Milorad Sofrenic, a member of the executive board of BiH's Football Federation, told SETimes. ''BiH suffered a horrifying civil war only 20 years ago. In the past, there were always three sides. But now we have a perfect multi-national team in which there is a splendid atmosphere. The football association is functioning on the same principle."
Among what some are calling a "golden generation" of BiH players is one of the world's top strikers, Edin Dzeko of Manchester City in the English Premier League. After ravaging the German Bundesliga for 66 goals in 111 league games and another 19 goals in tournament play for Wolfsburg from 2007-2011, Dzeko has struck 67 times in the last four years for Man City. He and Vedad Ibisevic of Stuttgart combined to score 18 goals during World Cup qualifying.
In the midfield is Roma's Miralem Pjanic, a Tuzla native who has eight goals and 15 assists in 46 appearances for the national team. Another Bundesliga player, Schalke's Sead Kolasinac, will help anchor the defence in front of goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (England's Stoke City), who allowed only three goals during the qualifications.
Begovic was born in Trebinje, and his family moved to Germany when he was 4, and later to Canada. Kolasinac was born in Germany in 1993, during the war. Pjanic was born in 1990 and his family moved to Luxembourg before the war started. Ibisevic's family moved to Switzerland in 2000 when he was a teenager. Dzeko was born in Sarajevo in 1986, and spent the war years there, surviving. He has given numerous interviews describing how his family's house was destroyed, and how his mother once called him to come home seconds before the area where he was playing was hit by a bomb.
"We want to show the world that even if you go through some bad periods, you always have to think positive just to go forward," Dzeko recently told CNN. "Some people had a very hard life, we are still making positives and I think that's amazing."
FIFA President Sepp Blatter commended the Dragons, noting that they "managed to surpass all the problems in the country and to connect people of three different nationalities."
Mirza Soco, 35, an electrical engineer from Sarajevo, agreed.
"The only reason anyone knows us is because of the war or maybe the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984," Soco told SETimes. "This team has united us and brought us some light. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are all together to support the team and to say something positive about our beautiful little country from some small part of Europe. For us to be in a World Cup is spectacular."
But there are also those who see the team's accomplishments as a meaningful step for the development of sport in BiH.
"Like all other Balkan national leagues, BiH's league is also poor," Sasa Kajan, 41, a football coach from Mostar, told SETimes. "But if we look at the Croatian national league, we will see that they set up a serious game because of participation in World Cups in the past several years. In that way, sport is getting on its quality, stadiums are getting more full, more money is in the game. In England, football is an industry."
Officials, fans and players expect that the team will hold its own in Brazil, where the Dragons will face Argentina (June 15th), Nigeria (June 21st) and Iran (June 25th) in group play. But it won't be easy, as the opening game against Argentina pits the Dragons against one of the world's best teams.
"We will fight, as we were doing it so far. And we will win," Sofrenic said.
The team features players from all three major ethnic groups: Bosniak (including Dzeko), Serb (Dynamo Moscow's Zvjezdan Misimovic) and Croat (Split Hajduks' Tino Sven Susic).
While there is talk about each ethnic group supporting its own players, the majority of fans say football is succeeding in uniting the country in a way no politician has been able to do.
"Politicians should learn from the players how one team can function," Goran Najarec, 50, from Banja Luka, told SETimes. "The boys reunited this country in just one year. Now Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are supporting together the game of our representation. And they did that without any money, promises or elections. All they did is just play football."
What impact will the BiH football team's participation in the World Cup have on the development of sport and inter-ethnic relations in the country? Share your thoughts in the comments section.