Sunday, 15 June 2014

What does the World Cup mean for Bosnia?

As Bosnia-Herzegovina gears up for the most important match of its history, I speak to a number of Bosnians around the world to try and understand what this World Cup appearance means to their troubled nation.

Carrying the hopes of a nation: All eyes in Bosnia will be on its players as they take
to the pitch against Argentina later today. (Source: cyprus-mail.com)

For Bosnians, the day has finally come.

Later today, eight months on from Vedad Ibisevic’s crucial goal in Kaunas, the Dragons will line-up in its first ever World Cup finals match when it faces Argentina at Rio’s historic Maracana Stadium.

The team’s presence in Brazil is a defining moment in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s short history as an independent nation.

For so long, this small and troubled land has been defined by its dark history above everything else.

Ever since Bosnia qualified for the tournament on that chilly October evening in Lithuania, much has been made of the obstacles this country has had to overcome just to reach this stage.

And, undoubtedly, these are stories which deserve to be told.

It is hard to believe that two decades ago, while my friends and I grew up with little to worry about, children the same age as me were constantly surrounded by the terrors of a brutal and horrifying war.

In all, some 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the battles that broke out between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Yet, while the fighting ceased in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Agreement, the scars resulting from this bloodied conflict are all too clear almost 20 years on.

Divisions among the three main ethnic groups persist. Politicking is ever-present, with often little being achieved. Even worse, many of the nation’s citizens suffer daily hardship, with Bosnia’s unemployment rate sitting at a staggering 44 per cent.  

Despite these problems, the national football team’s success is providing a welcome distraction for many Bosnians.

But how far does this extend?

When I ask my Bosnian mother-in-law what the Dragons’ qualification means to her, I expect to hear glowing praise of the team and the morale boost it is serving to her and fellow Bosnians. Instead, her answer provides a stark reminder of the reality of life in the Balkan nation.

“As an average woman in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am proud of the Dragons,” says Lejla, 47, of Zenica. “But I think that we give too much attention to them. We are not really in a situation to celebrate.

“It’s all great and nice, but we have to be realistic.

“I have enough problems, and I can’t just sit calmly and watch the match like you can, for example. I can’t afford the luxury to buy cevapi, soft drinks and snacks and just sit there watching the game without a worry in the world.”

Her 18-year-old son, Kerim, is of a different mindset.

“This is Bosnia’s first time qualifying, people should not think about their problems and just enjoy this one month of football,” he says.

While most across Bosnia-Herzegovina are indeed enjoying the start of the World Cup, many are opting to support sides like Croatia instead of the country in which they are living.

On Thursday evening, fans decked out in the symbolic red-and-white checks of Croatia packed bars in Mostar to cheer on Bosnia’s neighbour in its opening match against Brazil.

But while loyalties for many non-Bosniaks in Bosnia remain elsewhere - particularly with Croatia and Serbia (who are not playing in this World Cup) - there are those who are bucking the trend.

Twenty-six-year-old Marko, of Zenica, is one of them.

“I am pure Bosnian, with Croatian roots,” he says, adamantly. “I will support Bosnia because it’s my homeland.”

Boris, a 33-year-old resident of Sarajevo, is another who pledges his allegiances to Bosnia despite possessing a Croatian background.

For him, the Dragons represent an opportunity to bridge the divide between the nation’s ethnicities.

“This is our first time to be part of a big competition such as the World Cup,” says Boris. “I hope the positive image that follows our team makes more and more people in Bosnia – who previously were not supporting our own team because of political reasons – start supporting it.”

The Dragons train on the Maracana pitch ahead of its World Cup opener. (Source: klix.ba)

It is not just people in Bosnia-Herzegovina who will be tuning in to watch their beloved side take on the Lionel Messi-led La Albiceleste later today.

Living outside the Balkan state is an estimated two million Bosnians – an extraordinary figure given Bosnia-Herzegovina’s population stands at a mere 3.7 million.

One of those expats casting a keen eye over the match will be Admir, 47, of Red Deer in Canada.

A former professional footballer in Yugoslavia for FK Vojvodina and Borac Banja Luka, Admir is mindful of the situation in his homeland, but says the Dragons embody how Bosnia should be in the future.

“It has been very hard to forgive and impossible to forget what happened there 20 years ago,” he says. “But in order to move forward we need to learn to love and respect and live together. We just have to.

“What our Bosnia football team represents is what Bosnia should look like and behave like. Those boys are great role models for others.”

Similarly, 37-year-old Denis will be watching on from his home in Ottawa, and is confident the players on the football pitch will send a strong message.

“Economically, Bosnia is still struggling as a country,” he says. “But we can show to the world through the language of football that we can be united. It is important for the people to boost their morale and to maybe – somehow – alleviate some of the pain.”

In another corner of the globe, Mirjana, a 32-year-old Bosnian-Serb now living near Canberra, is also optimistic the World Cup presence will bring people together within the region.

“I sincerely hope and expect many to support Bosnia,” she says. “Some may not do it openly but in the Balkans we have a thing about going for an underdog, and I surely have a lot of friends from neighbouring countries who will support us.

“I do not expect a lot of open support from the Serb republic on social media, but I’m sure they’ll be watching.”

Flying the flag: several thousand Bosnians are estimated to have
converged on Brazil to support their homeland.
Regardless of what eventuates on the football pitch in the coming weeks, Bosnia’s appearance in Brazil is enough to instil a firm sense of pride within a population that has long had little to cheer about.

As Kerim says: “We are not just some little Bosnia anymore. Now the whole world knows about us.”

Marko shares that mindset.

“We showed the world that we might be a small country, and the whole world could mock and look down on us, but still we are one of the best nations in the world,” he says.

“The whole world will see how beautiful my nation is. I’ll cry, cry like a baby.”

And their predictions?

“I think they have very good chances of getting out of the group and possibly going all the way to the semi-finals,” says Denis.

Marko shares that confidence, and believes the Dragons will topple its more-fancied opponent today.

“Against Argentina, we will win,” he says. “They don’t have half the passion like we do. They have arguments in their camp and they don’t have a real playmaker.”

For others, like Admir, simply appearing on football’s biggest stage is all that matters.

“We are very happy that we are there and all we want them to do is compete,” he says. “And if it means we go through to the second round, that would be absolutely great. If they go any further it would be fantastic.

“But whatever happens, we stand and cheer for our team and continue to be proud that they have qualified and are able to participate in the World Cup.”

Boris agrees: “The game against Argentina will be something special for me. I think it will be one of those moments that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

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