Football

Bosnia's ethnic divide bridged by the beautiful game

Shrugging off its past: the Bosnia & Herzegovina national side (©GettyImages)
Shrugging off its past: the Bosnia & Herzegovina national side (©GettyImages).

Last week, Bosnia won its place at the World Cup finals for the first time in the country's short history.

After its formation from the remnants of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the former Soviet republic was, two years ago, banned from all international competitions for its inability to separate politics and sport.

However, under a soccer federation that has undergone extensive remodelling and reform, Bosnia-Herzegovina earned automatic qualification for Brazil 2014, the small, eastern-European country joining the likes of Spain, England and Russia: who all qualified on the same night.

Yet the sporting success of the country has not been confined to the late night celebrations on the streets of Sarajevo; Bosnia's victory seems to have had greater consequences on the European political stage.

Nearly two decades have passed since the country's harrowing civil war and nowadays, the country's problems do not lie with friction between ethnic groups, but lie rooted in the system created by the 1995 treaty.

“My message today to Bosnian politicians is: follow the example of your footballers and live up to expectations of your citizens,” said European Union enlargement chief, Stefan Fule, the day after the decisive match.

Important posts in Bosnia are operated in rotation; a genuine and considered attempt to ensure equal representation of all of the three, main ethnic groups. However, while the system is theoretically just, in reality, it breeds corruption, sleaze and an unspoken support for 'the old ways' in its most high-ranking officials.

Two years ago, Bosnia’s NFSBiH soccer federation was organised in much the same way as the state. Every 16 months, a Serb, a Croat, or a Muslim took the post of chief and, every 16 months, the role was handed on to the next candidate.

The system was dysfunctional; by selecting on grounds of ethnicity and disregarding competence, the association blundered blindly by crucial opportunities. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now captain of the Swedish team, was eligible to play for Bosnia. His Bosnian-born father made it clear that Sweden was second choice for his son; but, officials failed to chase it up and Ibrahimovic was capped by Sweden in 2001.

Moreover, after the imprisonment of three former Bosnian officials for tax evasion and embezzlement last year, many players and fans boycotted the side that teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, claiming that political divisions were destroying the possibility of any positive relationship between coaches, players and supporters.

FIFA and UEFA stepped in, demanding the appointment of a single chief to the federation, but with no promise of change, Bosnia was briefly suspended from all competitions in April 2011.

This shock proved to be the motivation that the Bosnian football governing body needed. Replacing the old federation, FIFA appointed its own committee of football professionals with Ivica Osim, the ex-Yugoslavian captain, at its head. Away fans were banned from stadiums and other dramatic changes were enacted in a desperate attempt to solve the deep-rooted problems Osim and his committee came up against.

Last December however, the first single president of the Bosnian footballing association was elected for a four-year term and while ethnic problems still linger beneath the surface in this deeply troubled country, football seems to be leading the way in terms of reform and progress.

“We now have a national team which is not based on the grounds of who is who, but who is the best,” Osim, now a senior adviser, said last week. “If only politicians were as cohesive as this team"

“We were in an abyss only two years ago,” said NFSBiH President Elvedin Begic, but now, after last week's success, Bosnia seems to be on an upwards spiral towards ethnic co-operation and becoming the positive beacon of success that the country needs if its is to realise its dreams of acceptance into mainstream European politics.


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Topics:
World Cup
Football
Edin Dzeko
Internationals

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