This is the first time Bosnia-Herzegovina has played in a World Cup, but it is not the first time Bosnians have played in a World Cup. In fact, when Yugoslavia last competed at a World Cup, in 1990, there were five Bosnians in the starting line-up for the quarterfinal against Argentina.
When Bosnia begins its World Cup campaign against – appropriately enough – Argentina in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, its coach will be Safet Susic, who, as a veteran playmaker, played the first hour of that game in Florence in 1990.
That was a hugely gifted Yugoslavia team, one built around an experienced Bosnian core with younger stars, the likes of Dragan Stojkovic, Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic, just coming into their prime. Given Yugoslavia had won the Under-20 World Cup in Chile in 1987, with a team that left behind Sinisa Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic, Slaven Bilic and Alen Boksic, yet still featured Prosinecki, Predrag Mijatovic, Robert Jarni, Igor Stimac, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker, the thought of what might have been had war not shattered the nation is one of the great imponderables of international football.
Yugoslavia had lost 4-1 to West Germany in its opening game, but came back to beat Colombia 1-0 and the UAE 4-1 (Susic scoring the opener) to qualify for the last 16. There, Stojkovic produced an astonishing individual display as Spain was beaten 2-1 after extra time, to set up a quarterfinal against the defending champion, Argentina.
The problems at home were beginning to brew and holding midfielder Srecko Katanec, a Slovenian with a Croatian mother, withdrew from the side a few hours before kickoff after receiving a death threat. Yet for half an hour, Yugoslavia was on top, but then Refik Sabanadzovic, one of the five Bosnians, was sent off for a second yellow card. Even with 10 men Yugoslavia held its own, although Oscar Ruggeri hit the bar and Jorge Burruchaga had a goal controversially ruled out for a handball.
The game went to penalties. Stojkovic missed, at which Tomislav Ivkovic, the goalkeeper, promised him nobody would remember because he would save from Diego Maradona. He did, but Dragoljub Brnovic and Faruk Hadzibegic – another Bosnian - also missed and Yugoslavia, for the final time, was out.
For the coach, Ivica Osim, who was born in Sarajevo to a Slovenian-German father and a Polish-Czech mother and who has gone on to become an elder statesman of the Bosnian game, a highly respected figure able to transcend ethnic divisions, the defeat was about more than the exit from a football tournament.
“I think about the World Cup in 1990,” he said, “what might have happened if we’d got past Argentina. Maybe I am optimistic, but in my private illusion I wonder what would have happened if Yugoslavia had played in the semifinal or the final, what would have happened in the country. Maybe there would have been no war if we’d won the World Cup. I don’t think things would have changed in that way, but sometimes you dream about what might have happened. Things might have been better after the World Cup.”
It was Susic’s last game for Yugoslavia. One moment in particular stands out.
“When it comes to the World Cup, there are no rules,” he said in an interview with the Observer. “We had fantastic preparations for [the 1982 World Cup in] Spain and went out immediately while we struggled before the 1990 World Cup, as well as in the first match against Germany, and performed well at the end. That’s why our lack of experience is not that important. At the end, one small thing can decide your destiny. Take that Argentina quarterfinal in Italy. Brnovic missed the penalty after he decided to take it with his right foot. I remember him practicing the penalties prior to that match, and he always took it with his left foot. He changed his mind and we went out.”
Susic’s preparations for this World Cup have themselves come in for criticism, largely because in preparation he has abandoned the 4-4-2 that saw Bosnia through qualifying as the second highest scorers in the UEFA division, leaving out Vedad Ibisevic to shift to a 4-2-3-1. He has spoken of the need for pragmatism, and his hinted that he may only use the additional midfielder against Argentina.
The one clear benefit of the warm-up victories over Ivory Coast and Mexico was the emergence of the 21-year-old Muhamed Besic as a viable option at the back of midfield. In 2010, he became the youngest player even to represent Bosnia but in March 2012 he was suspended by Hamburg for a breach of discipline following an incident that led to the manager Thorsten Fink grabbing him by the throat.
“I've always followed his game and never doubted his quality,” said Susic. “He’s progressed in every department and will be one of our major players for a long time."
Nobody has the expectations for Bosnia that there were for Yugoslavia in 1990, and Susic has been clear that he believes this Argentina side is better than the aging world champions were then. Besic’s unexpected development, though, might just be the “small thing” Bosnia needs to at least compete.
After the war and the recent flooding, which killed at least 30 people and damaged the homes of as many as a million, there is a sense of perspective and no talk of revenge or of atoning for Sabanadzovic’s red card or Hadzibegic’s miss. Even more, there is a sense of pride at having made it to the World Cup less than two decades after the war came to an end.
The link to its last involvement is just a beautiful coincidence.