11 November ~ There was a sense of dismay in Bosnia when the Euro 2012 play-off draw pitted their fast-improving national side against Portugal. The Portuguese denied them qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, after a two-legged play-off which they dominated. But lessons have been learned. Tonight Bosnia will seek to take the initiative in front of 16,000 fans who will cram into the compact Bilino Polje stadium in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. The sense of anticipation is palpable in Bosnia ahead of the matches, with players, management and fans all acutely aware of their significance.
After eight unsuccessful attempts, this is the team's best chance to qualify for a major tournament. Under the capable stewardship of the former Paris St-Germain legend and Yugoslav international, Safet Susic, they are well-equipped to do so. The team has consistently defied its critics and consolidated under difficult circumstances, including a brief suspension from both FIFA and UEFA earlier this year. The Bosnian side has gone from strength to strength throughout.
The team's development has been hampered by the residual effects of the 1992-95 war and the ethnic divisions that still dominate the country's politics. In the realm of sport, many of Bosnia's Serbs and Croats still prefer to back the Serbian and Croatian national sides, rather than Bosnia. But over the last few years, this has slowly changed. The composition of the current team – while still dominated by Bosniaks (Muslims) – is multi-ethnic. The team captain, Zvjezdan Misimovic, is a Bosnian Serb (although he was born in Germany), while Sasa Papac is from the traditionally staunch Croat nationalist area of western Herzegovina. Both are personifications of the growing sentiment within the country that the national team is the team of all Bosnians. Alongside an excellent team spirit, the form of their star players is encouraging, with Edin Dzeko particularly impressive for Manchester City.
While perhaps less of a threat than in previous years, the Portuguese will nevertheless be clear favourites. Bosnian defenders Papac and Boris Pandza are suspended for the first leg and Susic has acknowledged that containing Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and co with a weakened defence is his greatest concern. 2012 will be the 20th anniversary of both Bosnia's independence and the outbreak of war. The country still faces numerous challenges, but victory over Portugal and qualification for Euro 2012 would give Bosnian citizens, at least those who back the national team, something to smile about. Kenneth Morrison