The myth of Bosnian unity is being played out through its national team

After Sunday’s 3-0 loss in Israel, the success that saw Bosnia appear in this summer’s World Cup was pushed even further from relevance, though five months ago, the country’s first ever major tournament was cast as a potentially major step in unifying a young, divided nation. On the contrary, the idea of the Bosnia national team as a symbol of unity was always a mere myth. It is an easy story to tell for the journalist who never ventures out of Sarajevo’s old town – or, for the writer who relies solely on photos that emerge after the team’s success.

In Baščaršija, the market area and bustling tourist center of Sarajevo, every second shop and stand seems to sell replicas of the Bosnia jersey. On match days, fans wandering the streets were often draped in the yellow-and-blue flag, and on the night of Bosnia’s first-ever appearance in the World Cup finals, the ecstatic honking of car horns began hours before the game.

But drive a few hours north to Banja Luka, the second-largest city in Bosnia, and you’ll think you’ve entered a different country. Wait, scratch that. All you need to do is drive east out of old town, and after about 15 minutes, you will have entered another country. Gone are the blue and yellow flags; almost vanished are the minarets. Instead there are vertical banners of red, white and blue stripes, awnings proclaiming Lav and Jelen beer, and signs in Cyrillic script.

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You have entered Republika Srpska, a country within a country. To put an end to the armed conflict that had marred Bosnia for more than three years, the architects of the Dayton Peace Accords separated the new state into two separate entities, each of which have a certain amount of autonomy. Forty-nine percent of the land belongs to the Serb-dominated Republika Srprska, and 51 percent comprises the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Federation is further broken down into 10 cantons, the majority of which are populated by Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks. Three of the cantons are primarily composed of Bosnian Croats, the third of what are called Bosnia’s “constituent peoples.”

Nearly 20 years have passed since Dayton, and although the armed conflict has come to an end, ethnic cleansing has, in a sense, been accomplished. While the term brings to mind mass killings, the goal of ethnic cleansing is to create areas that are pure, occupied only by one group of people. In such an environment, it becomes easy to pin all woes on ethnic tensions.

Within this young country, nearly every aspect of life is viewed through the lens of ethnicity. And while it’s impossible to blame the current failings of the national soccer team on ethnicity alone, often the perception of it is enough to cloud the reality.

Prior to the World Cup, plenty of ink was spilled to create the illusion that Bosnia, so recently in the grip of war, had found a way to unite under the banner of the national team. Yet a closer examination shows that it is mostly the team of the Bosniaks, who make up around 50 percent of the population. The squad that went to Brazil was 87 percent Bosniak, 8.7 percent Serb and just 4.3 percent Croat, bringing a lone representative of a people who make up around 15 percent of the population.

Neven Subotic

Born in the former Yugoslavia, Neven Subotić played for the United States at youth levels before eventually representing Serbia, one of number of nations he was eligible to represent at senior level. (Photo: Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund/Getty Images)

The standard argument made is that Serbs and Croats refuse to play for the Bosnia national team. And there’s no denying there are players who hold opinions similar to that of Neven Subotić, who was born in Banja Luka but emigrated to Germany at age five: “In the end what really decided it was that my parents are Serbian and all my family – my cousins, my uncle, my aunt, my grandma – are all Serbs. They live in Bosnia but they cheer for Serbia and now they cheer for me when I play. It was a step back to my roots.”

Such sentiments are tied to feelings about Bosnia in general, and the sad fact is, many Bosnian Serbs and Croats simply do not feel a sense of belonging to the country. This disconnect extends to sports as well, with many choosing to support clubs like Serbia’s Red Star or Croatia’s Hajduk Split. And when international competitions roll around, they will cheer for Croatia or Serbia rather than Bosnia.

On a June visit to Trebinje (below), in the southernmost part of Republika Srpska, there was no evidence that the Bosnia national team was about to play its first-ever match in the World Cup finals. In fact, every bar and cafe was closed by midnight, when the game started. A group of young adults made it clear why the importance of the game held little sway. While they wanted Bosnia to do well, they said, they would never make such affection known publicly. An allegiance to the national team would be going back on their roots, and their outward displays of fandom were reserved for the Serbia national team.

It is, it seems, an unbreakable cycle. The lack of identification with Bosnia prompts players to not seek out the national team, which is then composed primarily of Bosniaks, which then further alienates around 50 percent of the potential fanbase. If family and friends are not cheering on Bosnia, what incentive do players have to seek out or accept a call?


Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

Another Trebinje resident was even more revealing when speaking about why most in the town felt nothing more than indifference to the national team. They felt unable to identify with a squad that took a mere two Serbs along for the ride. This, despite the fact native son Asmir Begović is the starting goalkeeper for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Place of birth clearly is not as important as ethnic identification.

There is no evidence that head coach Safet Sušić is opposed to calling Serbs or Croats. He did bring three non-Bosniaks to Brazil, after all. And for the qualifier against Israel, more than 25 percent of the players who arrived in Haifa were not Bosniak – three Serbs and two Croats.

But that doesn’t stop media, fans and even players from accusing the Bosnia FA of prejudice. Shortly after the World Cup squad was announced, defender Boris Pandža gave an interview in which he said, “A month ago I heard that only one Croat can go to Brazil, and it was Toni Šunjić. I had to be crossed off.”

It could be, of course, that Pandža, with his 19 appearances last season for Polish side Gornik Zabrze, simply wasn’t good enough to make his way to Brazil. But the former Hajduk player saw the situation quite differently. He accused the FA of bias, saying that it believed Bosnian Croats of being incapable of the patriotism necessary to play for the national team. It’s a statement that could certainly be believed, considering how recently many Croats in Bosnia fought to join Croatia.

Neven Subotic

Safet Sušić’s willingness to choose striker-less squads and select players with familial connections only complicate perceptions about Bosnia’s national team and FA. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

No, Sušić (right) has problems aplenty, but they seem to stem from his personality rather than intentional prejudice. Prior to the World Cup, the coach brushed aside those who questioned his decision to take just two strikers to Brazil. Both those strikers, Manchester City’s Edin Džeko and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibišević, were injured prior to this weekend’s European Championship qualifier in Israel. Rather than replace them with the likes of HNK Rijeka’s Ermin Zec, who’d made the preliminary squad for Brazil, or Milan Đurić, who’d scored for Cesena last weekend, Sušić maintained that he needed no strikers.

In fact, Sušić, normally a rather narcissistic man, veered toward the delusional when explaining his decision, commenting that Barcelona sometimes play without a striker, and it scores lots of goals. Against Israel, a game that Bosnia, with just two points to that point in qualifying, absolutely needed to win, Sušić elected to start Izet Hajrović, who plays right wing for Werder Bremen, up top. By halftime, Bosnia was down 2-0. The defense had fallen to pieces twice, and without firepower up top, there was no coming back. The game ended 3-0.

Could Sušić have saved himself, had he not been so tied to the players he continuously calls? In fact, there are many who could have been considered for the Bosnia national side – and many of those excluded could once again spark a debate as to whether the team gives preferential treatment to Bosniaks. Against Israel, Sušić elected to use Sturm Graz’s Anel Hadžić, a midfielder, in place of Schalke’s Sead Kolašinac, who tore his ACL … in August. With such notice, the coach and the FA could have courted the likes of Zenit’s Milan Rodić, who’s represented Serbia at the U-21 level but was born in Bosnia.

Yet using Hadžić may speak more about Sušić’s family biases – he also brought nephew Tino-Sven Sušić to Brazil, despite skepticism from many in Bosnia – than it does about any ethnic prejudice. Hadžić is represented by the agency owned by Sušić’s brother, leading many to believe that the coach is fielding the player for reasons unconnected to his playing ability.

In spite of those biases, Sušić’s most obvious mistake remains the utter refusal to bring in additional forwards. Prior to the World Cup, Sušić argued that his team was a “compact unit” that worked well together. But while that argument made more sense than his comparing Bosnia to Barcelona, it still does not excuse the failure to even evaluate more forward talent, particularly as Vedad Ibišević picked up a serious injury back in August.

Branimir Hrgota, a Bosnian Croat, might have been persuaded to join the national team, but the Borussia Mönchengladbach forward accepted Sweden’s invitation in September. Milan Đurić grew up in Italy and is eligible for the Serbian national team, but he chose to play for Bosnia at the youth levels. When asked about the striker after he scored for Cesena, Sušić said, “We cannot call every player as soon as he scores one goal.”

It’s rarely possible to separate politics from a national team, but although in Bosnia politics and ethnicity are inextricably intertwined, it appears as though the decision not to supplement the squad was down to Sušić, not the machinations of the FA. Other players, Bosniaks, have also not been called, including Zaragoza winger Eldin Hadžić, who has declared his interest in playing for the national team; Aidin Mahmutović, who already has four goals for Teplice in the Czech first division; and Emir Dilaver, a versatile fullback who played in the Champions League for Austria Wien last season.

Regardless, Bosnian unity — whether through the national team or in national politics — remains a mere myth, a pretty picture painted by those who want to sell a heartwarming narrative. But it’s also far too simplistic to blame all the country’s problems on ethnic divides. Still, after the 3-0 loss to Israel, it’s highly unlikely any fans will be placing blame on anyone but Sušić himself.

With two points from four games, Bosnia has little hope of qualifying for Euro 2016. The problem of creating a truly national team will fall to whoever is next in line, who will likely assume the mantle sooner rather than later.


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