I’m a big football fan, but I hate the interethnic rivalry that mars club football here in Bosnia. As a result, I haven’t been to one club game since 1991, and most people I know are the same, generally supporting clubs in one of the major European leagues.
The country is made up of three so-called “Constituent Peoples” (the ethno-national groups created over the recent centuries, and enshrined within our Constitution) and “Others” (ethnic minorities and those refusing to adhere to the categories forced upon the citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina by political and religious leaders). In a handy form of propaganda, football has been used by each of the three “important” peoples as a tool to divide the domestic league along ethnic lines.
In this context, the national team has been presented in the media as a model of “perfect ethnic integration,” with Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all working as a team. Notably, for a country where ethnicity pervades every aspect of daily life, I have only ever seen one player from the current squad mention their ethnicity in the media.
We have failed at the final hurdle three times previously (falling in the play-offs in our last two attempts to qualify for a major international tournament, and in the final group match for qualification for Euro 2004).
During this period, I have seen the fleur-de-lys flag flown by the pro-independence forces during the war (and for a short period after the flag of the country and favored by the vocal Muslim diaspora community), replaced by the modern-day flag which is considerably less antagonistic, and more inclusive of all peoples of the country. I’ve also seen friends who a decade ago frowned at me for supporting my country begin to take an interest and gradually begin to show support for the team.
However well we may represent ourselves on the international stage as a model of harmony, serious change still needs to be implemented at home: fans of clubs that were formed (or re-formed after dissolution during the Socialist period due to overtly ethnic affiliations) continue post-1992 to chant songs riddled with ethnic references, and this trend has, sadly, begun to catch on amongst the younger fans of previously un-ethnically-affiliated clubs. Ethno-political meddling with the running of our football association led, three years ago, to our suspension from UEFA and FIFA for two months; the club that finished ninth in our domestic league in 2012-13 qualified for the Europa League via league position, due to teams finishing third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth failing to obtain UEFA competition licenses; and, saddest of all, Vedran Puljić, an FK Sarajevo fan, was shot dead in October 2009 by a rival supporter in the town of Široki Brijeg.
So, roll on the World Cup, and, however we perform, the players will come home knowing they have done their country proud. But once the euphoria has subsided, I hope that we start to think how we can return the favor as a nation.