Lying a lowly fourth in Group D of the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying competition, Bosnia-Herzegovina face a fight for survival when they host Romania in Zenica on Saturday. Defeat to the Romanians could deal a fatal blow to their chances and undo all the good work they did in reaching the continental play-offs for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
“We’ve got some really good players playing in the biggest leagues in Europe. The resources are there but something seems to be missing at the moment,” laments Pandza, attempting to explain why the Bosnians have failed to kick on in recent months.
It was only a little over a year ago that they were duelling with Portugal for place at South Africa 2010 following an excellent showing in a qualification group that included eventual world champions Spain. Yet, the hangover of their two-legged defeat to the Portuguese has proved to be a long one, with coach Miroslav Blazevic giving way to former Yugoslavia midfielder Safet Susic and the chemistry that served them so well in 2009 now proving elusive.
“We’re still a young team,” says Spahic, looking on the bright side. Described by his team-mate Pandza as the coach’s mouthpiece, Spahic has proved something of an inspiration for his young partner at the heart of the Bosnian defence, who, like him, was born in Croatia, where both players first made their names.
Setting the tone
“Emir has a lot of experience and he’s been in the national team for a long time,” says Pandza, expressing his admiration for his older colleague. “He knows just how important the big games are and he talks to us a lot, especially at half-time. He’s the skipper and he acts like one too. It’s a pleasure to play alongside him. We have a very good understanding and he’s a great example for me.”
A veteran of the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification campaigns, the 30-year-old Spahic, formerly with Torpedo Moscow and now plying his trade with Montpellier, is the charismatic leader of a national team that is striving to reach the finals of a major international competition for the first time.
Spahic’s role in ensuring continuity in the centre of the Bosnian rearguard is a vital one. “I’ve never played anywhere else, ever since my early days with Dubrovnik,” he says. “I don’t know if it was a calling of mine but my first coach put me there because he obviously thought I had the right mentality for the job. I’ve been like that since I was born. Maybe that’s why I became a defender and why I’ll stay one for the rest of my life.”
Six years Spahic’s junior at the age of 24, the uncompromising Pandza joined Belgian outfit Mechelen from Hajduk Split last summer. Like his older sidekick, he possesses the kind of spirit and determination the Bosnians will need to show from here on in if they are to snatch a ticket to Ukraine and Poland.
A half-time substitute in the 1-1 draw with Albania last October, his only appearance in the group to date, Pandza is regarded as one of the finest central defenders in the Belgian top flight. Having made his way up through the national youth ranks, he won his first international cap in 2007 and has remained in the set-up ever since, without yet making himself an undisputed first choice.
That said, he is more than well placed to assess the assets and defects of the current Bosnia-Herzegovina side: “With the new coach we’re playing with four at the back, instead of three, as we did under Blazevic. It’s a different system and there have been a few changes. Obviously the coach is trying to impose his philosophy and methods and that means we have to adjust. I have every confidence in the strength of our defence, though. I believe in it.”
Making up lost ground
Four points adrift of second-placed Belarus, albeit with a game in hand, Bosnia-Herzegovina can ill afford to slip up at home to the Romanians, who lie two points behind them in fifth.
Kicking off the group with a 3-0 win in Luxembourg, the Bosnians then lost 2-0 at home to France before that draw in Tirana, a result that still rankles with Pandza: “We dropped two points against Albania. They hardly had a chance and scored from a free-kick. I’m still disappointed about it because we were much the better team, but we didn’t take our chances, we switched off and we paid for it. Fortunately, the team’s young and very talented too, which means we still have an awful lot of room for improvement.”
The time for that talent to start delivering results has arrived, however, starting with Saturday’s encounter with the Romanians, a potential turning point in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s continuing bid to break into the European big time.