The scenes immediately after Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 1-0 victory in Lithuania that secured their first-ever ticket to a FIFA World Cup™ will live long in the memories of the country’s 4.6 million inhabitants. While some players cried tears of joy, numerous others danced and sang on a live broadcast alongside two of the nation’s television presenters. All-night parties ensued in the streets of Sarajevo before the team was paraded from the airport to the city centre on an open-top bus.
Sergej Barbarez is better placed than most to try to make sense of the outpouring of emotion in his homeland. “What’s happening right now affects all Bosnians deeply,” the former international midfielder told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview a matter of hours after the triumph. “The fact that we’ve finally qualified for a World Cup is priceless for us, especially after we narrowly missed out on reaching a major international tournament twice in a row. Football has shown our country what can be achieved. You have to experience it yourself to understand it. It’s incredible!”
The 42-year-old knows what he is talking about. The former national team captain earned 47 international caps, scoring 17 goals along the way. Barbarez was also twice named Bosnia-Herzegovina player of the year (2001 and 2003) and laced his boots for Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen, netting 95 times in 330 Bundesliga outings. He is still revered as a hero and pioneer by his compatriots to this day.
Football has shown our country what can be achieved. You have to experience it yourself to understand it. It’s incredible!
“The team’s performances play a big part in Bosnians’ pride,” said Barbarez, who now lives in Hamburg. “It was like that even with the first generation of players when we made people take notice of our country. It’s very emotional to see that our successors have taken the next step and will be participating in Brazil.” Barbarez admitted struggling to sit still while watching the match against Lithuania on television and the morning after his country’s historical achievement, clearly still taking it all in.
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s fiery passion and scintillating attacking play paved the way for them to secure automatic qualification to Brazil 2014 as Group G winners in European zone qualifying. With 25 points from ten matches, in which they found the target 30 times, coach Safet Susic’s charges finished ahead of Greece on goal difference alone. “It would have been a real injustice had we not won the group,” said Susic afterwards. Only Germany (36), the Netherlands (34) and England (31) scored more frequently during qualifying.
It is for that reason that Barbarez' believes the importance of the partnership of Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic up front cannot be understated. The duo notched ten and eight goals respectively to finish behind Netherlands forward Robin van Persie (11) as the continents sharpest-shooters in qualifying. “Manchester City’s Dzeko, Stuttgart’s Ibisevic and Miralem Pjanic of Roma are really good in attack,” said Barbarez. “But you can’t forget Asmir Begovic either.”
The 26-year-old goalkeeper can do no wrong according to Barbarez, and it is easy to see why. While consistently demonstrating his ability between the sticks for Stoke City, the custodian was only beaten six times over the course of Brazil 2014 qualification.
In addition to a world-class attack and a top-quality shot-stopper, Barbarez singled out Emir Spahic for particular praise. “Our captain is a true leader,” he said of the Leverkusen defender, who, like Dzeko and Begovic, played all 900 minutes of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s campaign.
Yet while the footballing talents of the current ensemble have never been in doubt, that has not always been enough. “The fourth and most decisive factor in the success is the character of the players in this team,” Barbarez continued. “We were so close to qualifying two times before and didn’t make it. That was unbelievably painful. Now the boys have finally shown what they can do.”
Not that he is entirely surprised by the development: “The current generation in the Bosnian side has gained so much international experience, with the national team but also with their clubs. A lot of players are under contract in England, Germany or other big European leagues. It’s clear to see the difference that makes in the long run.” Coach Susic agrees: “This team gets better with every game.”
After the final whistle in Lithuania, as Dzeko and Co donned yellow t-shirts bearing the words ‘Bosnia are going to Brazil’, their status went beyond that of football players and turned them into true role models. Eighteen years after the end of the Bosnian war, football had provided a remedy for a nation’s pain.
With a spot at Brazil 2014 guaranteed, the confidence within the national side means they will travel there more than to merely make up the numbers. “After the game, I saw on Bosnian TV that the coach said they’d head to Brazil with the intention of playing seven matches,” Barbarez told FIFA.com in response to what he believes his nation could achieve next year. “I don’t know if he said it as a joke but his facial expression looked pretty serious.”