Miralem Pjanic and Bosnia and Herzegovina have a rare chance to avenge a play-off loss endured in the previous major tournament’s qualifying.
The inimitable tension of a two-legged play-off for a place in a major championship finals is one thing, but going into the situation for a second time in two years against the rival that denied you last time is another. That is the scenario facing Bosnia and Herzegovina ahead of Friday’s first leg of a reunion with Portugal that will decide which team goes to Euro 2012.
Recognized as a soccer nation in its own right by FIFA just 15 years ago, this has the feeling of being an epochal moment for Bosnia. Miralem Pjanic certainly thinks so. Speaking exclusively to FOX Soccer from Bosnia’s training base in Hrasnica, in the suburbs of Sarajevo, the Roma midfielder said that he expects the tie between the two sides to be even tighter this time.
“Both Portugal and us were very close to qualifying directly,” he said, “so there’s a real sense that this is destiny. Losing two years ago was a disappointment, but we’ve grown since then. We’re improved defensively, and we know we can score against any team with the players we have.”
There is no doubt that Portugal are traveling to face a proud nation, something underlined by the Bosnian FA’s atmospheric choice of venue. Friday’s match will be played in Zenica, a staunchly working-class industrial town that lies an hour’s drive to the northeast of Sarajevo, the capital.
Portugal unsuccessfully petitioned UEFA to move the tie elsewhere, citing a below-par pitch. The Wednesday edition of Bosnian daily Nezavisna Novine reported the visiting delegation’s continued disquiet over the state of the playing surface under the headline ‘The Portuguese are still complaining.’ The Bosnia side is pleased to be here – the 15,600-capacity Bilino Polje is intimate and noisy, and will set the tie up in a totally different dynamic to 2010, when the pair played the opening leg of the World Cup play-off at Lisbon’s vast Estádio da Luz.
The spirit in the Bosnia squad is “superb,” according to Pjanic, despite the deflating concession of a 77th-minute Samir Nasri penalty equalizer to France in Paris last month, allowing Laurent Blanc’s side top the group ahead of them.
“It was disappointing that we couldn’t hold on for the win against France,” he said, “but that wasn’t due to lack of ability on our part.” That coach Safet Susic’s side dominated for long spells, despite the losses to injury of goalkeeper Kenan Hasagic and key defender Mensur Mujdza, is heartening.
There is a bond between players representing a society that still nurses religious and ethnic divisions. “I chose Bosnia,” Pjanic unequivocally told FOX Soccer. “I’m always very happy to come and play here, and I’m very proud of my country. It would be fantastic for us to play at a major championship and we will do everything to make sure we do, but if not, this is a talented young team with a big future.”
The element of choice is a key one. Many of these players are the children of refugees, driven out by war (which lasted from 1992 to 1995) to safe havens elsewhere in Europe, and could have ended up playing for other nations. Pjanic (Luxembourg and France) and fellow midfielders Sejad Salihovic (Germany) and Haris Medunjanin (Netherlands) all moved west as children. Playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic was born and raised in southern Germany, while defensive midfielder Sanel Jahic was born in France, growing up in Strasbourg.
Lazio’s Senad Lulic spent his later childhood in Switzerland and started his professional career in the Swiss lower leagues, while Hoffenheim striker Vedad Ibisevic’s family also moved briefly to Switerland, and then the US, when he was a teenager. Ibisevic, who played college soccer at Saint Louis University, told this column during a 2009 BBC radio interview that he had “always assumed” he would play for the US until his 2004 move to Paris Saint-Germain took him back to Europe.
Others could have been lost to Bosnia, too. Pjanic played for Luxembourg at under-17 and under-19 level, Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic made a raft a appearances for Canada’s under-20 side, and Medunjanin was even part of the Netherlands squad that won the 2006 Euro under-21 championship in Portugal.
The FIFA amnesty of 2009, allowing players who had appeared at junior level (or, in some cases, senior friendlies) to switch to another eligible nation, certainly helped – and has been aided by some tightening of administration. Shortly after declaring for the national team, Medunjanin said his choice had “always” been Bosnia. He had previously held positive talks with then-head coach Blaz Sliskovic after being approached early in 2006 but subsequently heard nothing more, so he accepted the Dutch call when it came from Under-21 boss Foppe de Haan.
Lessons have been learned. Nineteen-year-old defender Muhamed Besic, who plays for Hamburg, was born in Berlin and sounded out by Germany. Susic acted quickly, giving Besic his debut in a friendly with Slovakia last year, two months after his 17th birthday, making him the youngest player to turn out for Bosnia’s senior team.
Besic is present in a squad lacking three of its first-choice back four, presenting a real test for Susic, a man voted PSG’s best-ever player in a France Football poll last year. Yet the coach is sanguine, and this mood has been absorbed in the locker room.
“We know Portugal is a good side,” admitted Pjanic, “but we’re more than confident in our abilities.” In an environment where nerve may make the difference, Bosnia is more ready than it has ever been.
Other Euro 2012 play-offs
Turkey vs. Croatia
Turkey hold bad memories for Croatia. Ivan Klasnic’s goal in the final minute of extra-time against the Turks looked to have secured a place in the Euro 2008 semi-final, but Semih Senturk’s even later equalizer led to an eventual defeat on penalties (and much ensuing anguish). Nine of Slaven Bilic’s current squad were involved in that match in Vienna three years ago and will be keen for revenge against a Turkey team shorn of its most cultured midfielder, Real Madrid’s Nuri Sahin, who is lacking match fitness.
Czech Republic vs. Montenegro
The stylish Czech Republic side of 2004 arguably should have won its second Euro that year, but the team has been on a steady slide since. Now centered around the midfield craft of Bordeaux captain Jaroslav Plasil, current coach Michal Bilek will hope goalkeeper Petr Cech recovers from the broken nose sustained playing for Chelsea last weekend. After its own recent coaching change, Montenegro will hope boss Branko Brnovic will be able to focus the side after the delirium of reaching the play-off with a strong fightback against England – in only his third match in charge.
Estonia vs. Republic of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland will be delighted having received the best possible draw in Estonia, but Tarmo Rüütli’s side could justifiably feel the same, and is full of confidence having won its last three qualifiers. Ireland has a poor record in major championship play-offs, and Giovanni Trapattoni will be determined to banish memories of the Thierry Henry controversy in the heroic failure against France in the 2010 World Cup play-off.