Three’s a crowd

An international ban would endanger Bosnian football at all levels. Kenneth Morrison explains a presidential problem

On a mild March evening in the industrial town of Zenica, a late goal by Edin Dzeko brought Bosnia another impressive victory, this time coming from behind to beat Romania 2-1. Having failed to qualify for a major tournament since their first competitive match in 1996, they narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification in 2010, losing in the play-offs to Portugal.

Yet this latest result was proof once more that Bosnian football is on the up and that qualification for Euro 2012 is not beyond the grasp of the national team. Sadly, however, a recent decision by FIFA and UEFA to suspend the Bosnian football federation (NSBIH) from engagement in international competition may mean that this progress is impeded. Having warned the NSBIH last year that its management structure did not meet regulations, FIFA and UEFA declared in a joint statement on April 1 that the federation would lose all its membership rights “with immediate effect and until further notice”.

The suspension came as a consequence of the NSBIH’s inability to adopt a statute that would require them to have one president (as opposed to three they currently possess). The federation had previously been given until March 31 to reach agreement on a new structure but failed to do so, making a
suspension inevitable.
But why does the NSBIH need three presidents, when one is sufficient for every other member of FIFA? The root lies in Bosnia’s complex political structure. The 1995 Dayton Agreement, which brought an end to the brutal 1992-95 war, divided Bosnia into two entities, the predominantly Serb Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups were recognised as the country’s constituent peoples and Bosnia’s institutions were created to ensure that each group was equally and fairly represented.

So it was with the NSBIH. Comprised of two associations, representing Bosnia’s new entities, the organisation was led by a three-member presidency (one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak) which rotated every 16 months. It’s a cumbersome system, but one which has been relatively effective in a country still bearing the psychological scars of war, and one in which many of its citizens do not support the Bosnian national team at all, preferring instead to support Serbia or Croatia.

Mirroring the deadlock over constitutional reforms in the political sphere, Bosnia’s football federation has proved incapable of making the necessary changes outlined by FIFA and UEFA. Bosnian Serb representatives within the NSBIH in particular fear that a reform of the current system may jeopardise their political
autonomy. Likewise, although to a lesser extent, the Bosnian Croat delegates have also resisted reforms, claiming that such an imposition by FIFA and UEFA is unjustified and lacking sensitivity to the political situation in Bosnia.

Financially, a year-long suspension would have a devastating impact on Bosnia’s domestic league. Often unable to pay their players, clubs such as FK Borac Banja Luka, Sarajevo’s FK Zeljeznicar or Mostar’s Zrinjski rely heavily on revenues generated by participation in the Europa League and Champions League qualifying rounds (around three quarters of the funding for Bosnia’s clubs comes from international sources). Moreover, the NSBIH has accumulated debts of €1.6 million (£1.4m) since 2001, and would face bankruptcy in the event of losing FIFA and UEFA funding.

To mitigate such problems emerging, a solution had to be found that would facilitate rapid reform of the NSBIH. So both FIFA and UEFA backed the creation of an interim body to govern Bosnian football until agreement can be reached. This “normalisation” committee is to be headed by Ivica Osim (the man who led Zeljeznicar to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1984 and the Yugoslav national team to the quarter-finals of the World Cup at Italia 1990), but it also includes a number of other former players and managers from Bosnia.

On May 26, the NSBIH will meet to discuss the suspension and its implications. Failure to agree upon a new management structure could mean a ban of one year for the federation, negating any possibility of Bosnia reaching their first major international tournament and wreaking financial havoc upon the country’s domestic clubs. With crucial Euro 2012 fixtures against Romania and Albania scheduled for June, and the Europa and Champions League qualifying rounds taking place in July, both fans and players will be hoping that an agreement, or the basis for an agreement, can be reached. If not the future could be bleak for Bosnian football.

From WSC 292 June 2011