When the draw was made for the European Zone of 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying back in November 2007, there were few observers who could see past Spain and Turkey taking the top-two slots in Group 5. Nearly two years on and the experts have got it half right, with the UEFA EURO 2008 winners flying high in first place with six wins from six. Yet instead of Turkey, third-place finishers at Korea/Japan 2002, or a Belgium side packed with promising young stars, it is Bosnia-Herzegovina who have taken a firm grip on second spot.
Taking part in only their third FIFA World Cup qualifying phase, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Football Association (NFSBH) having only joined FIFA in 1996, the Balkan outfit have quickly become a genuine force on the European stage. Indeed, they have won four of their six games in the section so far, with their two defeats coming by the odd goal away to established heavyweights Spain and Turkey. What is more, they are currently four points clear of the latter and in pole position to claim the group's South Africa 2010 play-off berth, as well as outscoring all their rivals with 18 goals to date - two more than La Roja.
"We've got a good coach and we're a good team, with young players plying their trade at big clubs. The spirit within the squad is tremendous. We're like a big family. I think that's the secret of our success," captain Emir Spahic told FIFA.com. The central defender, who plays for French club Montpelier, has recovered from a bout of swine flu in time for Bosnia-Herzegovina's upcoming qualifiers away against Group 5 bottom side Armenia and at home to Turkey, on 5 and 9 September respectively.
"Maybe it'll be the Turkey game which definitively decides our fate, but we meet Armenia first and we can't afford to slip up. We have got to take one step at a time and tread very carefully," said Spahic, before touching on the possibility of reaching next year's global showpiece. "My heart tells me we can make it. I'm always very optimistic and positive and I believe in this team."
After the country's football fans took to the streets to celebrate two wins over Belgium in March/April's qualifying double-header, an even greater outpouring of national joy could be in store should Miroslav Blazevic's charges beat Turkey in Zenica. "The most important thing now is not to let this opportunity slip through our fingers," said the coach.
My heart tells me we can make it. I'm always very optimistic and positive and I believe in this team.
While the Bosnia-Herzegovina camp focus on taking full advantage of their chance to make history, their Turkish counterparts have a fight on their hands to stay in the qualifying race. Fatih Terim's side, who enjoyed a thrilling run to the last four at EURO 2008, need only look at a record of six goals scored and five conceded when apportioning blame for their faltering attempts to qualify for a third FIFA World Cup finals.
"We've made a few mistakes but we've also had a load of bad luck in front of goal. But we'll be extremely focused against Estonia and things will turn out well for us," vowed Turkish midfielder Arda Turan ahead of Saturday's encounter in Kayseri's Kadir Has stadium, tickets for which already sold out.
Turkey must take all three points to stay on the Bosnians' trail before the two teams meet on Wednesday in a game which, given Bosnia-Herzegovina's current cushion, is another must-win clash for Terim's squad. "There are 12 points still to play for and I don't think Bosnia will take all of them," said striker Nihat Kahveci from Turkey's pre-game training base. "We all want to go to the World Cup and we'll do everything in our power to get there."
An emphatic 3-0 away win in last month's friendly against Ukraine provided a welcome confidence boost for Nihat and Co, though their cause will be weakened by the absence through injury of key Brazilian-born midfielder Mehmet Aurelio. However, the final word must go to coach Terim, who masterminded a series of dramatic comebacks in Austria/Switzerland last summer: "As long as you're in the right place at the right time then you can make the impossible possible."