The past few months have not been easy for Toni Sunjic. In May 2016 the centre-back suffered the disappointment of relegation with Stuttgart, and in the previous November, was part of the Bosnia and Herzegovina side that missed out on a place at UEFA EURO 2016 after a defeat to Republic of Ireland in the qualifying play-offs.
As a result, the angular 6'4 (1.93 metres) defender found himself involved in the rebuilding process with two sides. While Stuttgart are aiming to return to the Bundesliga, the national team's objective is to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup™.
Nevertheless, Sunjic's club career has not gone entirely according to plan. In the first half of the season the defender was a regular in the Stuttgart starting line-up, only to fall down the pecking order and be loaned out to Serie A side Palermo in January. "When the new coach arrived in Stuttgart I wasn't in the first team any more," he said in an interview with FIFA.com. "That's why I wanted to try my luck in Palermo and I'm very happy here now. I've settled here very quickly and Mato Jajalo, as well as the other players from the Balkans, have helped me with that."
Palermo are currently in the midst of a relegation battle, and after Sunjic initially only made a few cameo appearances, he featured for around 40 minutes in a 4-1 defeat away to leaders Juventus last Friday. "I can see already that Serie A is a very strong league," he said. "If we can play all our games like we did against Napoli [a 1-1 draw] and Crotone [a 1-0 win] then we've got a good chance." In his short time in Sicily so far, the 28-year-old has already recognised a difference between Italian and German football: "In Italy it's more tactical. In Germany teams are much more open."
Road to Russia
Sunjic will soon join up with his colleagues in the national team as they resume their quest for a place at Russia 2018 – an objective coach Mehmed Bazdarevic's charges are well placed to achieve. So far they have won two, drawn one and lost one, leaving them on seven points in third spot in Group H behind leaders Belgium (12 points) and Greece (10). "When you consider that Belgium are in our group we're not doing too badly, but it'll be difficult to finish top," said Sunjic, who won the Bosnian championship with in Zrinjski Mostar 2009.
Sunjic says that Bazdarevic has "not changed much" since his side's defeat in the European Championship qualifying play-offs. "Ireland didn't really suit us as an opponent and in the end they deserved it more than we did. We still have the same core of players. We just need to show more than we did in the last qualifying campaign."
Memories of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil are no doubt helpful in that regard. Bosnia and Herzegovina's participation there was the nation's first at a major tournament since independence was declared in the early 1990s. Sunjic was part of the squad and played two matches from start to finish. "It was an experience I'll never forget and is something I can be proud of for the rest of my life," he said. "Unfortunately we didn't make it out of the group stage and I think we could've done a lot better." The team ended up just one point behind Nigeria in third place in Group F, and are now eager to make amends in Russia.
The country's route to the tournament suffered a setback in Greece in the team's last match in November. They were 1-0 up for a long time thanks to Miralem Pjanic's goal, only for Georgios Tzavelas to equalise for the hosts in the fifth minute of stoppage time. "Taking a point in Greece isn't bad, but we deserved to win and their goal hurt us," Sunjic said.
All of which means challenging times are ahead for Sunjic, with both club and country: "As I said earlier, it'll be difficult to top our group. If we can finish second I hope we'll have better luck in the play-offs."