Flares and fireworks lit the Sarajevo sky as thousands of people poured into its streets to celebrate deep into the early hours of yesterday Bosnia’s success in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The scenes of joy stood in stark contrast to the brutal 1992-95 siege of the Bosnian capital, which produced some of the most harrowing images of a conflict that claimed about 100,000 lives in the former Yugoslav republic.
Tuesday’s win over Lithuania in Kaunas took the national team to its first major tournament since independence in 1992.
Donning national team shirts and wrapped in flags and scarves, Sarajevans and other Bosnians who descended on the capital celebrated the historic success as a seemingly endless motorcade blocked streets.
“This is a lesson to everyone in Bosnia what can be achieved with hard work, persistence and talent,” Austrian diplomat and High Representative of Bosnia Valentin Inzko said in Kaunas after the joyous national team mobbed their coach Safet Susic.
“This victory reaches beyond the boundaries of sport and it is a message to all good-willed people in the country that a better future is possible. The citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina can be proud of their national football team,” he told Sarajevo-based FaceTV channel.
Nearly two decades after the conflict, Bosnia remains marred by ethnic divisions, political instability and economic hardship, with the bickering of rival Serb, Muslim and Croat leaders slowing progress towards European Union membership.
A US-brokered peace deal silenced the guns but created a system of ethnic power-sharing so unwieldy that the process of governing often grinds to a halt, stifling recovery and reform in a country where 28 per cent of the population are unemployed.
The prospect of playing in the World Cup has, in the short term, put aside worries about delayed wages and low pensions, and instilled hope politicians can follow in the footsteps of the national football team, a rare beacon of light and unity.
“This victory means everything to me,” 51-year-old doctor Sanja Mandic said as jubilant youths flocked towards the giant fanzone in downtown Sarajevo, where the team joined supporters in late-night celebrations after returning from Lithuania. “I love them so much, they are the only bright thing in our lives and a glimmer of hope in these terrible times.”
Bosnia owes its impressive achievement to exiled household names such as Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and Stuttgart forward Vedad Ibisevic rather than its home league.
It was no surprise that the top scorers in the qualifiers carved out the winning goal with Dzeko setting up Ibisevic to score from close range much to the delight of 5,000 Bosnian fans, who vastly outnumbered the home faithful in Kaunas.
“I want to thank all those who made the trip and also all our fans who are now celebrating in Bosnia and throughout the world,” Dzeko said. “We have shown just how mighty Bosnia is.”
Susic, once a gifted forward who scored 21 goals in 54 appearances for the former Yugoslavia and represented them at two World Cups, was barely able to hold back the tears as he addressed the press at Sarajevo airport. “This is fitting reward for all the hard work we have done in the past four years since I took over and I think we deserved to go through after scoring 30 goals in ten games,” he said.
“All credit to the players and our fantastic fans, who made this possible because they turned up in droves not just on home turf in Zenica but also in every away game too.”