Amid all the fanfare about the World Cup holders Spain qualifying for the 2014 edition, about England scraping through at the top of their group and Russia holding off the challenge of Portugal, another story emerged: that of Bosnia-Herzegovina qualifying for their first-ever finals.
As a country, Bosnia-Herzegovina has only existed since 1992. However, the end of the nation of Yugoslavia did not immediately mean Bosnia had its own national football team. The Bosnian War lasted a further three years, meaning it was '95 before Bosnia-Herzegovina was officially recognised as a FIFA member.
Too late to participate in the Euro '96 qualifiers, their first attempt in qualifying for a major tournament was for the 1998 World Cup.
Three successive failures at attempting to reach major tournaments were perhaps an inevitable consequence of starting afresh in football terms, but Euro 2004 hinted at improved form as they ended fourth out of five teams—but just two points separated the top four, all of whom won four matches, Bosnia included.
During World Cup 2010 qualifying and Euro 2012, Bosnia went closer than ever before; both times they finished as runners-up in their groups and went on to the playoffs—but also on both occasions, Portugal stood in their way and barred the door to a major tournament.
Little surprise, then, that the celebrations were both instant and explosive when the final whistle went in Kaunas on Tuesday night:
Sport picture of the day: Bosnia-Herzegovina's World Cup flares: Bosnia-Herzegovina fans celebrate their team'... http://t.co/08g4hO1jO7— The Success Mentor (@SuccessMentorHQ) October 16, 2013
The World Cup 2014 qualifiers saw Bosnia-Herzegovina drawn in the same group as Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein.
Things couldn't have gone much better in the opening games as they put eight past the minnows of the group, Liechtenstein, before a rampant 4-1 win over Latvia. A 0-0 draw with Greece was also to be applauded—Greece, dull and uninspiring as they might be as a footballing nation, are regularly amongst tournament-goers and have an enviable defensive record. An away draw, then, was no bad thing.
Three successive wins really gave rise to the belief that they could do it this time around.
Lithuania and Latvia were both swept aside, the latter by a 5-0 scoreline, but sandwiched in the middle was the all-important clash: a 3-1 home victory over Greece.
It was the three stars of the national team who found the scoresheet in that game; Vedad Ibisevic, Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic are far from the only quality players in this squad, but they are perhaps the most talented and the most important.
Every great story has to have a moment of doubt, slip-up and worry, though, and Bosnia's came with only three more matches left to play.
An unexpected home defeat against Slovakia meant they were once again level on points with Greece, a situation that would remain unchanged to the end of the group phase. There was no more margin for error, and only goal difference—massively in Bosnia's favour—could see them win the group now.
Late goals in Slovakia overturned an early deficit as Bosnia recorded a 2-1 win just a few days after the defeat; those three points meant that the final two group games in October would determine whether Bosnia went to a World Cup automatically or not.
Last Friday's 4-1 win over Liechtenstein was routine once Dzeko had opened the scoring, but the final game in Lithuania was one of nerves, apprehension and lacking the usual final-third fluidity and end product that has become Bosnia's hallmark during qualifying.
It took until there were barely 20 minutes remaining—with Greece already winning and looking good for their own three points—for Bosnia to get the goal they desperately needed. Ibisevic took centre stage for the historic moment, netting from close range a goal that will likely never be forgotten in Bosnian footballing history.
The summer in Brazil yet lays ahead of the nation and the challenges they face there will be unlike anything the qualifiers has thrown at them, but in a way Bosnia have already achieved their main goal.
For the first time ever, Bosnia-Herzegovina will play at a FIFA World Cup tournament—and that, for now, for a nation not even 20 years old, is as much cause for celebration as winning the trophy itself will be for others.
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