There is a natural desire, on the part of everyone from pundits to fans to football bureaucrats, to exult in the power of the World Cup to unify.
This is especially true in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is making its World Cup debut next month. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Jonathan Wilson noted that “tens of thousands of fans of all ethnicities took to the streets of Sarajevo to celebrate Bosnia’s qualification for World Cup 2014 […] There, general delight suggested that something unexpected and beautiful had occurred, and it hinted at a possible future unity.” Inevitably, the focus of much of the attention will be on how this divided country’s qualification for a World Cup has united the entire nation after nearly twenty years of post-civil war rehabilitation. “A few years ago you could not imagine Bosnians, Serbs and Croats supporting the team, but that could change now,” Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Safet Sušić was recently quoted as saying in an article pointedly titled “Bosnia goes from the battlefield to the World Cup.”
But on the ground in Bosnia-Herzogovina, it looks for all the world like Sušić is wrong. Within the country, one can hardly fail to notice the evidence of disunity. It’s not just that reminders of civil conflict are unhappily commonplace – the pockmarked buildings, the improvised graveyards that were once public parks or, in summer, the unnervingly routine glimpses of scars on uncovered legs or arms. Even if one wished to forget, scrawled slogans and subtle plaques alike make forgetting impossible. But it’s also that the contemporary segregration is so strong, and—unfortunately for Sušić and other cheerleaders of comity—so deeply enmeshed in football culture here.
Identity remains hugely significant in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The country is an uneasy federation of nations that came into existence as a result of the breakup of a similarly uneasy federation: Yugoslavia. Though many in Bosnia-Herzegovina never wanted Yugoslavia to collapse, plenty of others did, convinced that they would be better served by being part of an entirely different country, namely either Croatia or Serbia. Some Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats resent the fact they are forced to be citizens of a country with which they do not identify.
Moreover, to many nationalists throughout the country, internal divisions are not just “ethnic”, but also religious; Serbs are Orthodox, Croats are Catholic and Bosniaks are Muslim, and elements within each group would have it that ne’er the three shall meet. From the embers of a war where religion denoted nationality as much as anything else, Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged in the eyes of some as an “Islamic” state distinguished from “Catholic” Croatia and “Orthodox” Serbia. To those who would oppose it, therefore, the football team of Bosnia-Herzegovina is essentially a manifestation of an Islamic identity they do not share.
“The snow fell in November 1995,” wrote Bosnian journalist Saša Ibrulj in 2013, “as Bosnia-Herzegovina prepared to play their first ever official international match on the last day of the month, nine days after the Dayton agreement. The country was still divided, and so was the football. The Football Association formed the league, but it was not able to include clubs from parts of the country where the majority were Bosnian Serbs or Croats.”