Four years ago, it was Slovenia. This time, it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Allow me to explain.
It’s not some deep-seated affection for Balkan football, though that does play a small part. Four years ago, I was not captivated by the likes of Robert Koren, Valter Birsa and Aleksandar Radosavljevic to the extent that I lost my heart. And while this year’s Bosnian team contains a fair amount of talent, it’s the manner in which both sides qualified that led me to putting a shiny pound on them to win the competition.
It all comes down to UEFA qualifying. At the start of qualifying for the 2010 finals and again in 2014, the group winners were to go through and the other four places to be decided by play-offs between second-placed sides. It was to be an open draw. Half way through 2010 qualifying and again four years later, that was changed and the play-offs were to be seeded. This is not right. You can’t just change the rules of a game half way through. Well, you can, but you really shouldn’t lest people level accusations of rigging and corruption at you.
Four years ago, Slovenia drew the might of Russia in those hastily reorganised play-offs. A late goal gave them a crucial foothold in the game in the first leg, going down 2-1 in Moscow. A 1-0 win in Maribor was enough to see them through, the only non-seeds to go through and defeat the would-be fixers. So it was them to whom I pledged allegiance in South Africa.
France were one of the sides the change of heart favoured four years ago. This time, they were the only non-seeds to progress, but given the origin of my gripe, I couldn’t back them this time. Bosnia were one of the non-seeds to bow out at the play-off stage four years ago, beaten 1-0 home and away by Portugal. This time, they didn’t leave it to chance. They steamrollered their way through qualification, losing only once – 1-0 at home to Slovakia – and drawing only once – 0-0 away at group runners-up Greece. Two of the top three goalscorers were Bosnian. This time, they’re my team.
The goals from Vedad Ibisevic and some lad called Edin Dzeko may take the bulk of the attention, but the scheming of Zvjezdan Misimovic, Miralem Pjanic and the set pieces of Sejad Salihovic are just as important. A defence marshalled by skipper Emir Spahic with exciting youngster Sead Kolasinac alongside him, and the reliable Asmir Begovic in goal, these are my chaps for the next few weeks.
I don’t expect the shiny pound to generate a return. It’s symbolic not an investment, though at 150/1 it’d be nice. This is about justice, fairness and not shifting the goalposts when it looks like some countries that generate large TV revenues look like they might get dumped out before the finals.
Hajde, Zlatni Ljiljani!