Expectations of a footballing breakthrough are running high in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for although the national team has frequently included one or two star individuals, the depth of quality in the current squad is greater than ever before. Local experts and fans agree it is high time they qualified for a major international tournament, with the entire country now dreaming of a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
But there is a flip side to every coin, and the soaring optimism could yet generate unbearable pressure for the players. However, one of the greatest footballing idols to emerge from the diminutive nation dismissed such fears.
“Suddenly people are saying it’s not that we could qualify, but that we must," former Bosnia-Herzegovina captain Sergej Barbarez told FIFA.com. "But I have a good feeling and real faith in this team. They’ll withstand the pressure and qualify for the World Cup."
That would be a first, as the Bosnians came close to the last two major tournaments but missed out in agonising circumstances. In qualifying for South Africa 2010 and UEFA EURO 2012, the Balkan side fell in the play-offs, to Portugal on both occasions. Barbarez, the last Hamburg player to finish top scorer in the German Bundesliga, reckons these painful defeats will actually help in finally sealing a berth at the FIFA World Cup.
“Maybe it's this kind of international experience we've lacked in the past," he said. "I think we've emerged from the matches against Portugal stronger than before."
The team coached by Safet Susic, arguably the greatest Bosnian player of all time, have landed in a Group G containing not one team currently in the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Bosnia-Herzegovina meet Greece (12th), Slovakia (41st), Lithuania (85th), Latvia (70th) and Lichtenstein (148th), prompting the man who scored 95 goals in 330 Bundesliga appearances for Hamburg, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen to agree that the luck of the draw had favoured his country on this occasion: “There are certainly harder groups on paper."
Pjanic is still a long, long way off reaching his peak. I rate him as one of the greatest up-and-coming talents in the world, and he’s sure to land at a big club like Barcelona or Real in the next few years.
Barbarez almost swooned with delight as he reviewed Bosnia-Herzegovina's current squad. “From the goalkeeper through to the forwards, we have real quality and players who are at big clubs," he said.
The defence is marshalled by captain and Sevilla star Emir Spahic, a calm and experienced presence at 32 years of age. Dynamo Moscow playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic pulls the midfield strings, and Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko completes a sturdy spine running through the team. “These three call the shots on and off the field,” commented the man who scored 17 times in 47 games for his country.
Another plus point for the current Bosnian team is the age of the players, as no member of the current squad can be considered too old for the 2014 showdown. “It's a settled team but all in all, it has another five to six years in it," Barbarez said.
The Bosnia-Herzegovina Player of the Year for 2001 and 2003 could not resist a grin when he turned to the subject of midfield gem Miralem Pjanic, who plays in Italy for Roma: “Pjanic is still a long, long way off reaching his peak. I rate him as one of the greatest up-and-coming talents in the world, and he’s sure to land at a big club like Barcelona or Real in the next few years. He's only 22, but he was linked with Spurs as Modric’s successor, which just shows what a name he’s made for himself around Europe."
Barbarez himself was a true leader as a player. Blessed with superb technique, he had the precious ability to win a match with one moment of sublime skill, but he was no Fancy Dan and always shouldered responsibility. “A handful of players have to show the way," he said. "The best thing you can have is a clear hierarchy."
However, as a combative and aggressive character himself, Barbarez is aware of the issues associated with a rigid division of the troops into generals and foot soldiers: “A degree of self-confidence is important, and within certain limits a touch of arrogance can be positive, in my opinion. But it has to be backed by performances. A certain arrogance has been there in recent years, but it wasn't matched by results. However, this team is different."
Barbarez salutes Greek spirit
Barbarez continues to tiptoe along the fine line between confidence and arrogance, and is certainly not one to sit on the fence. “I think we're favourites," he declared, although he expressed huge respect for one other team in the group.
“Greece will be our toughest opponents," he said, impressed by the extraordinary will-to-win displayed by the men in blue and white. “The Greeks’ hallmark is a brutal craving for success. They demonstrate it time and time again, although they're never on anyone's radar. It's possible we have a better team, but that means nothing against Greece." The latest team to feel the full force of the Greeks’ indomitable will were Poland at EURO 2012 on their home turf.
However, Bosnia will be favourites in most of their qualifying fixtures. Opponents will likely park the bus and seek to strike on the break, “but we have very good wide players and there's a lot of skill in the team,” the 40-year-old confidently stated. “We can mix things up tactically, and at the present time, we have it in us to prise apart defensive teams and score goals."
In the event Bosnia-Herzegovina live up to their billing and match the soaring expectations at home, Barbarez predicted wild celebrations in the football-mad country: “The term state of emergency wouldn't do it justice. I can promise every player he'll become an immortal and achieve unconditional hero status. The people will parade them on their shoulders."