Bosnia-Herzegovina's failure to reach the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals means they are still to feature at a major international tournament. Yet their determination to do so was clear in November 2001, when they made a joint bid with Croatia to host the 2008 UEFA European Championship.
Wealth of talent
There is the hope, however, that they will achieve their dream without having to rely on the ays and nays of a committee room. For as well as a reservoir of good will, Bosnia have had a wealth of talent at their disposal since their international debut against Greece in 1996.
Acquitted themselves well
That was in the qualifying round for France 98, where the newcomers acquitted themselves well, winning three of eight games to finish second bottom of Group One. Since then, football has continued to be a source of pride and recognition to a country ravaged by war in the early to mid-1990s.
Witness the emergence of Hasan Salihamidzic, Bosnia-Herzegovnian player of the year for 2001, and Sergej Barbarez at FC Bayern München and Hamburger SV respectively; the goals of Primera División-based strikers Elvir Baljic (Real Madrid CF) and Elvir Bolic (Rayo Vallecano); and the promise of Olympique de Marseille forward Alen Skoro.
Challenge for coaches
There is no lack of ability in this part of the world - FK Sarajevo and FK Zeljeznicar were both champions of the old Yugoslav federation. Yet how to mine that seam is another matter. This was the question facing first Dzemaludin Musovic, then Faruk Hadzibegic, his successor as national coach, as Bosnia sought to qualify for EURO 2000™.
Here, a young squad had mixed fortunes. The good: Baljic scoring all four goals in a 4-1 thrashing of Estonia in Tallinn; the bad: home and away defeats by Group Nine top dogs the Czech Republic and Scotland; and the downright indifferent: a 2-2 draw in the Faroe Islands. Despite this, Bosnia were in with a chance of second place, and a play-off, until late in the competition. As it was, they finished fourth, level on points with third-placed Estonia and fifth-placed Lithuania.
It was not good enough for former Yugoslavia captain Hadzibegic. "This team has potential," he said. "But conditions have not improved at all." He resigned to make way for Miso Smajlovic, but effecting change at local level was less easy.
The internationally recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Federation, or NSBiH, is based in Sarajevo, with a mainly Muslim population under its jurisdiction. When the country's united championship got under way in 2000/01, it comprised only Croat and Muslim teams. And even as late as December 2001, the Bosnian Serbs were undecided as to whether they would join the Premier League the following season. Just as a multi-ethnic national team will have to wait, so too a strong domestic league, with Bosnian players easy prey to clubs in neighbouring Russia, Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia.
It was against this troubled backdrop that Bosnia competed with Spain, Austria, Israel and Liechtenstein for a place in Korea/Japan. Smajlovic's side were unlucky to lose their opening World Cup qualifier 2-1 at home to Spain. "I just hope we will play like tonight in our future matches," said the coach. But when they could only draw 1-1 with Austria in Sarajevo in March 2001, after a 3-1 defeat by Israel, the heat was on the new man at the helm.
Failed to deliver
Sadly, 3-0 and 5-0 triumphs against Liechtenstein would have no bearing on the Group Seven standings, as Bosnia then failed to deliver against the big boys. While Spain were flattered by their 4-1 victory in Oviedo, Bosnia took just one point from key games at home to Israel (a 0-0 stalemate) and in Austria (a 2-0 reverse). Smajlovic was reaching for his P45.
The world will have to wait for Bosnia-Herzegovina, although the signs of progress are there. UEFA's East European Assistance Bureau (EEAB) is helping provide them with the necessary infrastructure to compete at the highest level. The national side had an unexpected but deserved success in reaching the final of the 2001 Sahara Millennium Cup in India - where they lost 2-0 to Yugoslavia. And, of course, there are the fine words of the NSBiH: "This EURO 2008™ bid is more than a sport, it has the goal to stabilise the peace in the region."
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