By Fuad Krvavac
Not since Sarajevo's Winter Olympics of 1984 has a sporting event in this part of the world been the source of such fervent excitement and Saturday's decisive UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifier between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Denmark certainly has the whole country on tenterhooks.
Victory for Bosnia-Herzegovina would give them first place in Group 2 and an automatic ticket to Portugal and as a result the demand for tickets is far outstripping the 35,600 available at the Koševo stadium.
Coach Blaz Sliškovic has been widely praised for his team's historic achievements. However, it took time for him to convince his detractors. Sliškovic took charge of the national team in 2002 and was heavily criticised following defeats - 3-0 at home to Romania and 2-0 in Norway - in his first two qualifiers.
However, the players have stood by Sliškovic and his willingness to combine experienced older heads with promising youngsters. He was also responsible for involving players from all parts of the country, divided into two ethnic groups during the civil war in the 1990s. "
Football has reunited Bosnia, fulfilling the peace goal in which all politicians failed," noted one newspaper in Sarajevo.
To avoid the feverish atmosphere in the capital, the players have gone to the country's south to prepare. "We had to 'run away' to Medjugorje, our favourite preparation camp," Sliškovic said before reflecting on the qualifying campaign. "Before the start of the qualifiers no one was thinking of us as serious opponents. We have used that and surprised European football and now we have come to a situation where we decide our fate.
"However, despite being the home team, Denmark are very strong and are favourites. We have to win, whereas they will be satisfied with a draw. That means we have to attack, but when and how will depend on the strength of our opponents. We have to be patient and mature."
Bosnia-Herzegovnia require victory as Denmark and Romania - who have played all their matches - are both two points clear of Sliškovic's side. Defeat for Denmark will relegate them to the play-offs. Any other result would mean qualification for the Danes and a play-off for Norway - who are currently fourth - if they beat Luxembourg at home. If Norway and Bosnia-Herzegovina both fail to win, Romania will finish second.
However, the omens are good for Bosnia-Herzegovina as, for the first time in this campaign, they have no injury problems. This has fuelled the optimism around the country, but, whatever the result, Sliškovic and his squad have achieved hero-status.
'Celebrate with our fans'
"We have achieved a lot," the captain, Mirsad Hibic, said. "We have made two big steps in the qualifiers. The last, most difficult, is ahead of us - the one that leads to football history not only for the team, but for the whole nation.
It will be difficult but with our determination we hope to celebrate on Saturday with our fans in the stadium and in front of their TVs."
Strikers Elvir Bolic and Elvir Baljic are both available for the home side as is the influential midfield player Vedin Music. However, his fellow midfield player, the young Sergej Barbarez, has really captured the public's imagination with his recent dynamic performances.
"Denmark are a very strong team," added Hibic, "and the fact that we beat them before [2-0 in Copenhagen in April] does not mean very much. They know us very well," Hibic, who turns 30 on Saturday, added. "Victory would be the best present for me and all our supporters worldwide."
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