It was a friendly international unlike any other. "One month after the war had ended we received the invitation from Albania," Fuad Muzurović, Bosnia-Herzegovina's first coach, tells uefa.com. "We accepted it even though we didn't have a team. Somehow we gathered 12 players." Most of the side were nearing the end of their careers or had come out of retirement to play. "Our Albanian hosts lent us the equipment, all we had were shirts. It was a big event, but our people only learned about the result later."
Cause for celebration
Few in Bosnia-Herzegovina even knew there was a national side, let alone that they were playing. The country was in ruins and there was no way to broadcast the match on television or radio. Radio hams picked up the result, but the eleven players who made history that day were not known in their homeland until the squad returned several days later. Only then could the local media put together a match report. Regardless, the news alone that a first official fixture had been played was cause for celebration.
Bosnia-Herzegovina lost 2-0 in Tirana but the result hardly mattered. The greatest achievement was that the match had been played at all, coming just nine days after the Dayton Peace Agreement had been approved to end the Balkan conflict. It would not be signed for another fortnight. When Bosnia-Herzegovina's players kicked off against Albania on 30 November 1995, their nation was only one month into the ceasefire that finally ended four years of fighting in post-World War II Europe's bloodiest conflict.
Muhamed Konjić, captain that day, remembers the occasion with pride. "It was an historic match, the favourite of my career," he says. "I was honoured to be the first captain.
At that match in Tirana, our national anthem was played at a sporting event for the first time." The national stadium in Sarajevo had been destroyed during the war, so the return five months later was played in Zenica. It finished goalless.
Bosnia-Herzegovina had been granted provisional FIFA membership during the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The country was still at war but representative matches were played across Europe featuring players such as Faruk Hadžibegić, Safet Sušić and Blaž Slišković (now national coach), who had been caught outside the country when war broke out. In 1995 Bosnia-Herzegovina became full FIFA members and a month after playing in Tirana, took part in a World Cup draw for the first time.
"We began creating a national team after that match with domestic players, but also with players from foreign clubs," Muzurović said. "In our first qualifying campaign for the 1998 World Cup, we had three amazing wins [against Slovenia twice and Denmark] and hosted Italy. We also played away in Brazil. The squad that played those qualifiers formed the spine of today's side. It's difficult to compare that first team with today's, which narrowly missed out on qualifying for [UEFA] EURO 2004™, and Germany 2006."
In a country still divided ten years after the conflict, the national side offers an important window to the outside world. It is a positive example of the country's Serb, Croat and Bosniac populations working together; helping build bridges within Bosnia-Herzegovina and also with the international community. Sarajevo's Koševo Stadion has been rebuilt and staged the goalless draw with Serbia and Montenegro at the start of the recent qualifying campaign.
Ultimately, Bosnia-Herzegovina's World Cup hopes rested on their Group 7 finale in Belgrade. A 1-0 defeat against Serbia and Montenegro meant disappointment this time, but could not diminish the achievements of the past decade. "
My players and I are really sorry not to have qualified, but we made significant progress, finishing third in a group with Spain, Serbia and Montenegro and Belgium," Slišković said. "We achieved another goal, getting younger players into our team."
The task ahead will not be easy. Captain Sergej Barbarez has retired and veterans Konjić and Elvir Bolić are expected to follow. Barbarez in particular will be difficult to replace. He was the team’s spiritual leader, coach Slišković's eyes and ears on the pitch. A measure of how far this team has come in such a short time is the level of expectation that now rests on Slišković's shoulders. Ambitious supporters have their eyes set on a place in a major tournament. UEFA EURO 2008™ might come too soon for Slišković's new generation, but the coach is confident expectations will be met sooner rather than later. "The most important thing is young players are slowly getting into the team which gives optimism for the future," he said. Fulfilling that promise would be a fitting way to complete a remarkable journey that began in Tirana ten years ago this week.
Additional reporting by Kadira Malkoc
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