From rubble to Rio: the rise of Bosnian football

From rubble to Rio: the rise of Bosnian football

“I support Serbia.” It was not the answer we were expecting. My colleague and I had just concluded an interview with a coach associated with an NGO tasked with the unenviable project of reuniting the war-torn citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and were partaking in some small talk about Bosnia’s football. More specifically, we asked him if he was excited about Bosnia’s chances that night, as they attempted to move closer to World Cup qualification by beating Latvia in Riga. Without missing a beat, the man told us that while he most certainly sympathised with Bosnia’s efforts, he was a Serbian fan at heart.

This is the essence of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a country divided, even now, almost twenty years after the conclusion of the Bosnian War. Three major ethnic groups still remain in conflict against each other, and it is holding the country back. Football, however, has an uncanny way to break through these barriers and unite everyone around a single cause. Bosnia has just taken part in their first World Cup, and their future is bright. But is it really that simple?

By the end of the atrocious war around 100,000 people had been killed, and many more had been displaced from their homes. The tragedy was not lost on us as we walked around various towns in the country, notably Mostar; a city under siege for nine months during the war, the bullet holes and graves were hard to miss. The recurring dates on the tombstones were especially sobering.

The Dayton Agreement, signed on November 21, 1995, marked the end of the three year struggle for independence as the process of democratisation begun. Apart from peace-making efforts to ensure the end of the war, this agreement served to begin the process of governance in the newly formed nation to be achieved by external international organisations.

A major implication of the Dayton Agreement was the division of Bosnian politics into three ethnic groups: Croat, Bosniak and Serb. These are the three major ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, although there can up to 15 percent of ‘others’ present in the nation.

Essentially, this agreement structurally ratified the results of the war and promoted the sharing of sovereignty rather than any future planning. This level of political control, corruption and monopoly would characterise Bosnian progress for some years to come. This means two major things for the Bosnia and Herzegovina government. Firstly, there are two ‘entities’ in the country: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republika Srpska. The Federation is designated for the group of Bošnjaks (Bosnian Muslim heritage) and Bosnian Croats, and the smaller Republic is reserved for Bosnian Serbs.

The problem with this division into entities is that these groups are not internationally recognised, and the legal issues are still being worked out to this day. Secondly, the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided between three individuals; a Croat and a Bosniak in the Federation, and a Serbian elected from the Republic. The Chief of State is then a rotating title, with each member of the presidency having eight-month tenure. ‘Others’ are of course excluded from any participation in this process.

The Dayton Agreement system has therefore created a vacuum where power is dispersed, but yet not located at anyone’s door. The Bosnian state possesses the power of external matters, as well as a limited number of inter-entity matters. Power is instead divided across the two entities, ten Federation cantons, 149 municipalities, and the neutral district of Brčko. As a result of this power vacuum at state level, the three political groups fight to gain maximum regional autonomy. It also has the effect of limiting the impact each municipality and canton can have; placing a roof at the mayoral level in terms of political influence.

Corruption and lack of transparency is also a real issue in the current Bosnian state with Transparency International scoring them 42 out of 100 in terms of control of corruption and 44 for its open budget index. There has even been a case when an external overseer in charge of Dayton implementation was forced to dismiss the Croatian member of the Bosnian presidency, Dragan Čović, in 2005 as a result of his corruption and governance practices. While the exact extent of the corruption in the country has proved to be hard to quantify, the complexity of the state is certainly a good indicator. The state apparatus swallows up more than half of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s GDP, with half of that going to public salaries alone.

This not only places a massive burden on the Bosnian economy, but also breeds a great deal of resentment over the allocation of funds, reducing public trust. This became clear in the protests in the spring of 2014, with one protestor accusing the current administration of “sucking up all our money”. With unemployment rates over 40 percent in December 2014, several citizens have become distressed at the way in which there is little or no state intervention or planning with regards to economic recovery. As important as ethnic divisions may be, the average Bosnian is far more concerned with daily issues relating to the economy and public institutions.

An often ignored facet of the hostilities, however, was the social element. The fighting severed the pre-existing bonds of trust and cooperation, ensuring that any post-war efforts to develop civil society, particularly on an inter-ethnic basis, would face a significant challenge. Civil society building, such as football, was often ignored, especially on the state level. The ethnic divisions which nearly tore Bosnia apart have been institutionalised and often overtake economic and political matters, making reforms seem difficult, if not impossible. Bosnia has, some have argued, become such an ethnically divided society that being a ‘proper’ Bošnjak, Serb, or Croat is more important than citizenship, ethnicising the country.

Having understood this, it will not be as much of a surprise to hear that football in Bosnia and Herzegovina has undergone a tumultuous lifetime. Bosnia was even suspended from football as recently as 2011.

Much like the state, the football federation had become a bloated beast created by an environment of appeasement after the war. FIFA and UEFA agreed that the Bosnian FA (N/FSBiH) would be allowed to be organised around three presidents, one from each ethnic group. This was, much like the state system, considered to be a temporary solution when Bosnian Serbs finally joined the unified football federation in 2002.

Permitting this setup has, amongst other things, led to a ludicrous league format. The Bosnian Premier League (BH Telecom Premijer Liga) consists of the top 16 teams in the whole country. Currently, in the 2014-15 season, there is a split of 11-6 in favour of the Bosnian Federation clubs. The lower levels are where it gets increasingly complicated.

The second tier of Bosnian football is divided into two leagues: the First League of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Prva liga Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine) and the First League of the Republic of Srpska (Prva liga Republike Srpske, or Прва лига Републике Српске for those of you more linguistically inclined). The second one of those was the top flight in the Republic before 2002, although it was not a UEFA recognised competition.

Below these tiers, the system is further divided into six regional sub-leagues, again both also divided along the Republic and Federation line. Finally, the fourth leagues number ten in total and are arranged by cantons and other regions. The bottom two leagues are, therefore, comprised of 119 clubs from the Federation and 84 on the Republic side. Still following?

The system finally clashed with the outside world in 2011 when FIFA and UEFA handed Bosnia and Herzegovina a suspension from all international footballing activities. This was as a result of the dispute over the governance of N/FSBiH, as their triumvirate system was deemed as having gone too far.

For one, this system allowed Bosnia advantages in terms of voting in international committees, as it resulted in the country really having three votes instead of the intended one. Secondly, it slowed down every process of the national FA as every ethnic group possessed veto power, and as such a quadruple majority could be ruled out if all objections came from the same voting bloc. Football’s governing bodies’ patience had run out regarding Bosnia’s temporary arrangement, and the national team’s qualification for Euro 2012 was, as a result, put in serious jeopardy. Fortunately, the ban was lifted in time for their next match, two months later, after a single president was elected for the first time in the history of Bosnia.

Coaches and others involved in football in Bosnia told me about how, just after the war, there was a serious lack of infrastructure and basic equipment for football. A few social organisations enabled especially the children to transition back into normal life through football. It is not always enough to build houses and bridges, as sometimes bridges between people are just as important (excuse the awful cliché).

As soon as these conditions were met, however, football in Bosnia began to blossom again. A vital part of this development has been the move towards unification of players and coaches across ethnic divides. Smaller, more grass root development projects such as Bubamara (Ladybirds) football school, and the Cross Cultures Project Association (CCPA) open football schemes, have had a considerable effect on bringing the children together to play football. These missions aim to move the country beyond the debate over ethnicity and develop alternative, and more contextualised, versions of peace that relate to people’s everyday lives. Edin Džeko was a famous graduate of the Bubamara school, while a majority of the women’s league in Bosnia has sprung out of CCPA’s program.

This move was significantly enhanced after the merger of the Bosnian Premier League, as it reunited the nation on a much greater social scale than many development projects before it. On the other hand, however, there is still great tension in league football within the country. Fan violence has marred local matches, and tragically an FK Sarajevo fan was killed by a rival supporter in Široki Brijeg. The N/FSBiH even imposed a ban on away fans travelling to games in the league after fierce fighting at several matches. Some teams are still mostly manned by players and staff from their respective ethnic group.

The national team, on the other hand, has now been held up as a symbol of a unified Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this has increased exponentially after their World Cup heroics. After the shambolic actions which led to their suspension in 2011, a normalisation committee was formed to help guide N/FSBiH through the necessary changes, and former Yugoslavia manager Ivica Osim was appointed as its head. Osim publicly decried what he called the usual practice in Bosnia, of pointing fingers at others, declaring that no one group was responsible for the demise of the FA in the country, but rather it had failed because of this environment of separation and the link to the conflict.

Hiring now former manager Safet Sušić was also seen as a major step in the right direction, and in terms of elevating the national team above ethnic squabbles. The current team, which has proven so successful, consists of players from several backgrounds. Diminutive playmaker Miralem Pjanić and target man Edin Džeko are both ethnic Bosniaks, midfielders Zvjezdan Misimović and Sejad Salihović are Bosnian Serbs, and defenders Mensur Mujdža and Toni Šunjić are of Croatian heritage. As Jiří Plíšek, a Czech manager who has managed both FK Željezničar and FK Sarajevo, two of the largest clubs in Sarajevo, put it: “If the politicians had their way, Bosniaks would have to pass to a Bosniak, Serbs to Serbs, Croats to Croats. But that’s not how football works; football connects everyone, and has the face of every nationality.”

These developments have not just promoted the mash-up of ethnic groups, but have also contributed to the Bosnian national team gaining stars they might otherwise have lost. Players such as Vedran Ćorluka, Dejan Lovren and Nikica Jelavić have all decided to represent Croatia instead of their birthplace of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Asmir Begović and Muhamed Bešić, however, are both key players in the team, but were both born outside the country. Additionally, 14 players in Bosnia’s various qualifying squads never played in the national league.

Many still remain unconvinced. The violence and social wounds still mar Bosnian society and football may not be equipped for such a battle. Walking around Mostar, the Croatian and Bosniak divided town in the south, I was struck with the contrast of people cheering and booing both Bosnia and Croatia, depending on which bar I found myself in. Bosnian-Serb TV did not even show the decisive match against Lithuania where Bosnia qualified for the World Cup and only mentioned the historic moment in passing. This team is still seen, in some quarters, as Bosniak-Muslim.

The national team is also experiencing some performance-related issues. Safet Sušić, previously a national hero, was unceremoniously sacked from his post in November after a disastrous start to their Euro qualifying campaign and a disappointing showing at the World Cup. Mehmed Baždarević has since been appointed, a former international midfielder with a wealth of managerial experience from France and Qatar.

As Bosnia attempts to move towards Europe and the EU, the national team stands out as a beacon of hope This is not to say that it is alone in carrying the future of Bosnia on its shoulders, but the cooperation and reorganisation seen within the footballing community and FA offers at least an alternative ‘how-to’ model for the state.

Bosnia’s recent elections have offered some hope of reform in the future, with the more established parties losing out to new candidates. It remains to be seen how much of this change was impacted by the aftermath of the devastating floods and euphoric World Cup, and as such how much of it will last. The demand for change is there, and it is now up to the rest of the country to catch up with the Bosnian Dragons.

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic

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