At least in terms of ready-made narratives, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s (BiH) first appearance at a major football tournament is precisely the sort of story international media will want to report. The Guardian and the BBC have already jumped on board, as had numerous other media ahead of the deciding match against Lithuania on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, foreign stories about BiH are for many folks from the region an often tedious experience; the bullet points are always the same. "War-torn," "recovering from war," "genocide," "ethnic differences," "Bosniaks (formerly Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats" etc. This is not to say that BiH is not a post-conflict "zone." It certainly is. And I don’t begrudge the global media for wanting to explain an often complex country to a large audience, often unfamiliar with the particulars of the current situation. But there are other notes that might be worth plucking, at least in reporting on the football team ahead of Brazil 2014.
This is a sampling of a handful of points worth keeping in mind about this new player on the world football stage:
To begin with, if you want to seriously talk about football in BiH, then you’re going to want to talk to Saša Ibrulj. In terms of analysis, Ibrulj is the authority and his work is widely available in English.
You’re also going to want to learn the name of Marjan Mijajlović, who has become the voice of BiH national football. Mijajlović’s unabashed enthusiasm for the national team has quickly won him a cult following among sports fans in the country. And it was Mijajlović who gave Edin Džeko the nickname "the Diamond" and dubbed the team "the Dragons." Finally, Mijajlović is unique also for the fact that he was born in Tuzla but speaks with a pronounced Ekavian accent, typical of Serbia proper.
Speaking of which, mention the goals, all 30 of them, but maybe this incredible game-winner by Izet Hajrović, in particular. Mention the individual goal scoring standings for this ferocious young attacking team. And mention that UEFA considered them the team of the qualifications, as much for the symbolism as for their play.
In terms of broader themes, rather than situate the national team as being held back by the usual ethno-chauvinist nonsense that dominates BiH political discourse, it would perhaps be better to juxtapose the team to the political establishment. For instance, after the BiH football federation was suspended by FIFA for having an absurd three-member, ethnically-constituted Presidency, a caretaker regime was brought under the legendary Ivica Osim. Osim, as much as coach Safet Sušić, deserves credit for having created an atmosphere in the FA based on respect, dialogue and, above all, the best interests of players and fans in BiH. This new FA has continued to struggle to reign in nationalistic provocations during certain domestic league encounters, but as far as the national side is concerned, the arrival in Brazil is proof enough of their success. Without much exaggeration, the BiH national team may very well be the only functioning institution in the country as a whole. And FIFA, in any case, should be commended for having taken a more serious and effective stance towards BiH than either the EU, US or the OHR.
Nevertheless, the “ethnic question” will come up. So, you might mention that the national team has legitimately become a team striving to represent all of BiH. Ironically, BiH may legitimately have more fans in Belgrade and Zagreb than in certain parts of BiH itself. Nevertheless, some recent media speculation suggests that things are not as dire as all that and that, at least privately, there is a growing fan base for "the Dragons" across the country.
Moreover, BiH’s coaches have been ethnically mixed for years now, as has the team itself. The most capped player in the team’s history, co-captain Zvjezdan Misimović, played for FR Yugoslavia at both the U18 and U21 levels. The man many consider to be the BiH “Captain for Life,” the now retired Sergej Barbarez, could not possibly come from a more ethnically mixed background. Recent call-ups like Ognjen Vranješ, Ivan Sesar and the incredible Miroslav Stevanović have also come up through local clubs in Banja Luka and Široki Brijeg. Stevanović’s decision, in particular, to play for BiH, as arguably one of the best players to come out of BiH in years and after having spent his formative years in Borac Banja Luka, is promising. On this front, it is also worth noting that the U21 side is even more “mixed.” Hence, while there is no guarantee that these kids will not, in the end, choose to play for Serbia or Croatia, for the time being they represent the clearest indication of BiH’s next football generation and "generation" more broadly, perhaps.
While BiH’s domestic league is in dire shape, success in Brazil will also likely mean a new crop of players from the diaspora wanting to don the national side’s colours, as has already become the case. This may not be much of a long-term growth strategy but for the time being, it's still an incredible pool of talent.
The central point here is a simple one: Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 will remain an emotional date for many people in BiH. This is not a society with too many recent successes. Nor is it a society whose leaders have shown very much willingness to change this fact. Indeed, if anything, these leaders have all but insisted on keeping the peoples of BiH impoverished, expelling their energies merely on stoking collective mutual suspicions and resentments.
Football may not have the ability to actually transcend politics but it has the ability to, at least, provide a different kind of conceptual space for people to share. Media, whether local or international, has a role to play in this too. Hence, this primer.
In the meantime, here’s hoping our Croatian cousins join BiH in Brazil in November. Sretno!