It TRULY is a horrific thought that not even the giant Maracana Stadium, filled to the brim with 74,000 people high on life and football, could fit all the dead from the Bosnia war. But their presence – in hearts, in memories – was felt as the young nation they never lived to enjoy made its World Cup debut, the 77th country to plant its flag on football’s biggest stage.
“This is why we came, to remember,” Adnan Filipovic said as he filed into the stadium with his parents, his voice breaking with emotion. “All those people are coming with us to this game.”
When the 1992-95 war made refugees of the Filipovics and so many others, never did they think they would one day see Bosnians teamed together, in Brazil of all places, giving two-time world champions Argentina and their superstar, Lionel Messi, a tough bone to chew.
On the morning of Sunday’s match, Filipovic prepared by looking at photos of the conflict on the internet, to remind himself how far he and Bosnia have come and why this warm Rio de Janeiro night was such an important milestone. The conflict killed more than 100,000 people, turned half of the country’s population of 4.3 million into refugees and left a legacy of poverty, high unemployment and never-ending political strife.
“We’re all looking for some closure here. I think that’s really what it is,” said Filipovic, who was 11 when his family fled Banja Luka, in northern Bosnia, in 1994. They wound up in the United States, in Augusta, Georgia, and built a new life. “In these things there is never a winner, there is no ‘victory’. I don’t even know what victory is – until today. I know for our flag to be in Maracana is some kind of victory.”
For a debut, Bosnia couldn’t have asked for better: a marquee opponent in the World Cup’s marquee stadium. The result – 2-1 to Argentina – was not what Bosnians wanted, although they probably feared worse.
Bosnia’s scorer was Vedad Ibisevic. When Serb soldiers murdered his grandfather and burned down his father’s village, his mother hid him and his sister in a foxhole she dug in the woods. Ibisevic came on as a second-half substitute and planted his goal in the 85th minute.
Ibisevic was already a hero to Bosnians. His goal in a 1-0 win over Lithuania last October punched Bosnia’s ticket to Brazil. Now he will also forever be the first Bosnian to score a World Cup finals goal.
Edin Dzeko, the striker Bosnians call their “diamond”, lived through the siege of Sarajevo, when Bosnian Serb forces shelled and fired on the city daily, killing over 11,000 people. He describes his early childhood as “nothing but fighting, war and bullets.”
“They are children of war, with scars, of course,” said Mirna Mahmutcehajic, also a former refugee, who now lives in Norway. Their team reflects how Bosnians were scattered to the winds. Midfielder Miralem Pjanic, for example, fled with his family to Luxembourg. Of the 23 players in Brazil, only reserve goalkeeper Asmir Avdukic actually plays for a Bosnian club.
“Football is bringing us together, making us believe in Bosnia, that we can build something,” said Mahmutcehajic. “It gives you a kind of pride. You know you are stronger than people who have only known happiness. We can come up from the dirt.”
Just as Bosnia coach Safet Susic promised, his team offered strong resistance to Argentina, among the favourites to lift the World Cup if Messi remains on song. His winning goal was spectacular, ending a weaving run through the Bosnian defence with a shot that fizzed in off the post. Bosnia made the worst possible start, when the ball bounced off unlucky defender Sead Kolasinac into his own net to give Argentina the lead after just three minutes. Technically strong on the ball, confident going forward and sufficiently well-organised to blunt Argentina for much of the game, Bosnia should come out of this thinking they can beat Iran and Nigeria and qualify out of Group F behind Argentina and continue their adventure into the knockout stages.
But that is for future matches. This was far more than just that. It was, fans said, the beginning of a new chapter. Instead of ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, mass graves and mass rapes, they said they hope people around the world will now instead associate Bosnia with football. Even on a historic night like this, Armin Alijagic said forgetting the war was impossible.
“We cannot think that we cannot think about it. It’s strange,” said Alijagic, who travelled from Zenica in central Bosnia.
But he was gratified to see so many fans coming together, including some from other Balkan states turning out in support. “What the politicians couldn’t do, football has done,” he said.