England fans might be yawning with relief that another tedious qualifying campaign is over, but many other nations are facing a dramatic climax to their quest to reach the European Championship finals next summer.
On Tuesday night (11 October, 8pm) Bosnia and Herzegovina face France in Paris knowing that victory will secure qualification to a major international tournament for the first time in their short history. I don’t think it’s an understatement to suggest this is the biggest fixture in a UEFA qualifying campaign for years, decades even.
It’s hard to set out your views on an opportunity such as that facing the Bosnian team without sounding patronising, ill informed, prejudiced, or all of the above. So, with those minor obstacles lying in wait, here goes.
When you think about the Bosnian team you inevitably end up thinking about the history of the nation. I have always struggled to comprehend what happened in the Balkans, and particularly in Bosnia, during the early 1990’s. Not because I’m one of those sick bastards who dispute evidence of genocide, it’s just that this happened in the 90’s and in Europe. To be blunt, shit like that wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. Football is of course utterly trivial in comparison to the events that took place during the war, but the Balkans region has always been so prolific in churning out world class talent that it must be pretty well engrained in the local culture. The speed in which the newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina quickly established their own team probably wasn’t surprising in that sense. Even so, when I was looking into their history I found out that they played their first FIFA recognised fixture in November 1995, just days after the Dayton agreement had been reached to end the conflict in the region. Like I said, they appear to like football in the Balkans. A lot.
Their current squad features players in most of Europe’s major leagues but, Edin Dzeko aside, there aren’t many names that are immediately recognisable (I plead ignorance here, they are obviously a talented side to be in this position). A nation of only 3.8million inhabitants, and surrounded by more estbalished football powers in Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia’s remarkable progress has been so rapid that they only missed on qualification for the 2010 world cup after defeat to Portugal in a playoff (as a brief aside, just imagine how good Yugoslavia would be if it still existed as a nation – Modric, Vidic, Dzeko, Vucinic – they would kick serious arse.)
I know it’s easy to question the merit of football. Where international football is concerned it can lead to an aggressive nationalism that I find quite uncomfortable (I’ve made this point elsewhere recently). But, I would never deny there is enjoyment to be had as well.
Also, on a basic level, the fans of the so called ‘big nations’ have it pretty easy. We expect our national team to qualify and if we so much as draw a game along the way it’s a national catastrophe. In addition, our clubs dominate the Champions League and we hoover up the best players from smaller nations. That’s as good a reason as any to cheer for Bosnia – and a small moment of history – at the Stade de France on Tuesday night (alright, and they’re playing France, I’m trying to rise above that).
Other games of note:
England’s campaign may have offered limited value in terms of thrills, but elsewhere there is much to play for going into the final round of matches on Tuesday evening.
The typically erratic German team (Played 9; Won 9; Goal Difference: +25) has won group A, leaving Belgium and Turkey to battle for second. I’d like to see Belgium in the play offs for two reasons: one, because everyone keeps talking about Edin Hazard, so he needs to be at the finals; and the second reason can summarised in two words: Marouane Fellaini. Unfortunately, Belgium’s final game is away to Germany. That’s Turkey in the play offs then.
Portugal travel to Copenhagen as group leaders ahead of Denmark, but only on goal difference. Portugal really shouldn’t be in this situation, given the talent in their squad, but they had a poor start to their campaign. You’d expect the Danish fans to create plenty of noise. It could be quite a night and if you’re not focused the game in Paris, this could well be the one to watch.
Also worth keeping an eye on Serbia, who must beat Balkans rivals Slovenia to ensure second spot and a shot at the playoffs. And finally, Ireland, who are playing for second given that group leaders Russia are playing Andorra. The Irish play third place Armenia, so to secure a playoff spot they only need to draw, the irony being that too many draws is the reason they’re not looking at automatic qualification.