For 60 minutes, Bosnia and Herzegovina supporters were left pondering a missed opportunity. Lithuania were holding their team, first in UEFA’s Group G, to a nil-nil after an hour in Kaunas. Meanwhile, Greece had done up through Dimitris Salpigidis after seven minutes at home against Liechtenstein. If those results held, Greece would win the group, qualify for Brazil 2014, and send Bosnia and Herzegovina to another playoff.
Then the breakthrough – the team’s two star forwards combining to alleviate their fans’ festering worry. Lithuania did their part, too, their defense falling to stop Edin Dzeko from reaching byline left of goal before crossing for an unmarked Vedad Ibisevic in the six-yard box. The Stuttgart striker’s redirection past a helpless Giedrius Arlauskis not only put his team in front, it gave soccer fans among his nation’s 3.8 million reason to hope this close call would fall in Bosnia’s favor.
Twenty-five minutes later, their hopes were realized. Bosnia had qualified for the first World Cup in the nation’s 21-year history/ The 1-0 result leaves them with 25 points in 10 games, same as Greece, but thanks to a +26 goal difference (Greece: +8), a team that’s been playing under their own name for just over 10 years has made their first major soccer tournament.
They’d come close in 2010, qualifying for a playoff before losing to Portugal, 2-0 over two legs. The failure to reach South Africa emboldened hopes to qualify for Euro 2012, dreams dashed by another playoff loss. This time, the Portuguese sent them crashing out with a 6-2 romp.
That’s why avoiding a playoff was so vital. Perhaps Safet Susic’s team could finally tame that beast, but there was a feeling of inevitability about going to another winner-take-all match. Been there, done that, and especially having to go through it again after having Group G in their grasp, Bosnia and Herzegovina had more reason than most to avoid a playoff.
Instead, the team’s made history, something that could prove significant for a country that was set up and still exists as a divided entity. Those divides aren’t formally maintained in the national team, so although it’s always a bit altruistic to assume sport can serve as a rallying point, in Bosnia, there is a chance World Cup 2014 can have symbolic value. The potential for a divided nation to function as a unit exists. At least, it does on the soccer field.
In time the Ibisevic goal could become to Bosnian soccer what Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard Around The World” is in the U.S., only its potential importance could be much greater. Both goals sent their countries to World Cups, but in the case of Bosnia, Ibisevic’s goal has the potential to symbolize much more.