Only weeks after Vedad Ibisevic scored the winning goal in the 68th minute against Lithuania that secured Bosnia and Herzegovina’s spot at Brazil 2014, a 10-metre deep and possibly the largest mass grave of bodies of victims from the 1992-95 war was uncovered in the country.
Less than 15 days ahead of the kick-off in Brazil, hydro workers found more human remains after Bosnia’s record floods last month.
Such is reality in BiH, where celebrations are short-lived and reminders of the country’s dark past lurk just beneath the surface. In a country where there’s still no closure for families when thousands and thousands are still missing since the conflict.
It’s an unsettling reality but these diverging portraits reflect BiH’s ongoing complexity. Football rivalries in this part of the world cut deep into the heart of its ethnic makeup. But the Bosnian national team also serves as an extension of the country’s multi-ethnic principles of past and present. The Zmajevi serve as a stark reminder of BiH’s once cosmopolitan and tolerant past. The harmonious interplay between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs to achieve WC qualification indicates that a peaceful coexistence is possible.
Everyone is learning something different and most of them have two schools under one roof, where the Bosniaks are on one floor and the Croats on another
These groups were fighting each other only 20 years ago.
Without romanticising the power of sport, the Bosnian team has triumphed where politicians have failed. Football has brought back a sense of pride in a short span of time where the political structures have foundered. But the conquest of nationalist politics from the early 1990s still carries remnants with it today.
Robert Austin, who is a specialist in East Central and Southeastern Europe, at the University of Toronto, tells Al Jazeera that one doesn’t have to look far to see the split nature.
“I think the problem is that you don’t have a single narrative,” said Austin. “In the entity everyone is learning something different and most of them have two schools under one roof, where the Bosniaks are on one floor and the Croats on another. They’re not learning the same narrative and history is extremely important.”
The institutionalised divide found in the education system probably offers different versions of the conflict and only further demonises and deflects blame and wrongdoing. It further demarcates from an honest effort at reconciliation when ‘otherness’ is promoted. That level of disharmony is also found on the political level as seen in the country’s effort to join the European Union.
“The Bosniaks are in favour, the Croatians understand the benefits. The obstruction, and this attitude comes largely from the Serbs, because they’re the guys who keep threatening these independent referendums.”
Learning from the sanctions
It’s within this context that football’s allure and uniting tendencies become all the more special. It’s the one institution that has defied the larger political culture as well as provided a framework to better the reconciliation process. It’s also an institution that underwent reform a few years ago after FIFA and UEFA imposed sanctions that prevented Bosnia from taking part in competitions due to its tripartite presidency.
Captain: Emir Spahic
Top scorer: Edin Dzeko (35)
FIFA ranking: 21
Highest ranking: 13
Lowest ranking: 173
The men’s team almost made it to South Africa 2010 and Euro 2012, but lost both times in the playoffs to Portugal. Led by coach Safet Susic, Bosnia is in the same group as Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. They could potentially come out of the group next to Argentina and advance to the knockout phases, but Nigeria, who won the African Cup of Nations last year is also another favourite.
With success comes support
That success has increased the team’s profile, and not only among the Bosniaks. The support has increased but that it’s more of an improvement rather than the ideal, according to Bosnian football journalist Sasa Ibrulj.
“The Bosniaks, or the people that lived in parts of the country that were under the government’s control during the war, support the team,” Ibrulj told Al Jazeera. “But things have changed in the last four to six years, especially after more players of different ethnicities played for the team. Majority of those people still support Serbia or Croatia, but I would say that many now feel sympathy for the Bosnian team as well. Ten years ago we had open hate. Today, if not supportive, they are at least indifferent to the team.”
Bosnia’s political and economic status has remained considerably unchanged. There’s widespread corruption, unemployment and overall stagnancy. This has led to a vicious cycle. Considered too risky and unscrupulous, there’s little to no foreign direct investment. Bosnia’s European Union progress, something most Bosnians support, has also fallen behind the rest of the region. Croatia joined the EU just last summer and Serbia already has candidate status.
It’s clear that the team could and should be a good example for the politicians
The Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 gave the country its constitution and brought an end to the war. But what it didn’t do was provide a viable option of progress and sadly maintained a strong sense of divide.
“The Dayton Peace Agreement gave Bosnia a constitution that entrenched these ethnic enclaves and created this sort of power sharing agreement, which has led to permanent deadlock within the state,” Austin added. “It ended the war but it didn’t create the basis for a normal state.”
Unlike the politicians, whose ideologies remain quite ethnic, the sport strives to create a new and unified identity that transcends these barriers. Football proves that Bosnia can manage and succeed under a single entity and perhaps a more centralised state wouldn’t be so bad of an idea.
Change is possible
The country did have its fair share of protests not too long ago. While it didn’t blossom into a ‘Bosnian Spring’, it did signal growing unrest among the population and a desire for change.
“It’s clear that the team could and should be a good example for the politicians,” Ibrulj said. “They have established their goals in sporting terms and all the differences have been put aside. But the established elite prefer to keep the status quo. They do it with nationalistic rhetoric and earn big money.”
The country will soon mark its 20-year anniversary since the end of the conflict, but football appears to be the sole entity of progress within that period. In the early 1990s it was unfathomable that decades later the country would partake in Brazil. Those that made it possible include Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic, Emir Spahic and Asmir Begovic are Bosniaks while Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miroslav Stevanovic are Serbs and Boris Pandza a Croat.
By no means is it fair to use football to paint a rosy picture of the country, but it does provide a model and lesson for its politicians. The Bosnian team represents positives that are no longer a pipe dream, but a real possibility.
It’s a beacon of light and symbol of hope that represents the potential of a harmonious coexistence, if personal and nationalistic greed is set aside to allow it to return to its peaceful and celebrated multi-ethnic past.