Bosnia make 'home' debut against Croatia

Lara Santoro previews tonight's World Cup qualifier in Bologna
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The Independent Online
Mira Polio, the Sarajevo-born representative of Bosnia- Herzegovina's football federation in Italy, has had enough of the media. Asked about the ethnic make-up of the team she has brought to Bologna for today's World Cup qualifying game against Croatia, she said: "If you called to ask this, I'll tell you immediately what you can do with your paper."

Her point, of course, is that Bosnia versus Croatia is just another football game. "It is not a political thing," she barks into the telephone.

The two teams are meeting in Italy because Bosnia were forbidden to use the Kosevo stadium in Sarajevo for their first home match. Fifa, the game's world governing body, said Bosnia was still too dangerous a place, and cited problems with available facilities.

Added to that is the fact that Bosnia as a team hardly reflects the sort of multi-ethnic, inclusive state envisioned by the Dayton Peace Accord. Only two out of the 22 players are not Bosnian Muslims (Vlatko Glavas and David Pavo are both Croats) and Uefa, the European governing body, has repeatedly urged Jusuf Pusina, president of the Bosnian Football Association, to overcome ethnic barriers by aggressively recruiting Serbs and Croats. Many believe the present make-up of the team is the reason behind Uefa's delay in granting Bosnia official recognition.

The Bosnians were defensive when asked by a reporter at yesterday's press conference whether there were any non-Muslims in their team. "We don't ask whether the Italian team is all-Catholic," a team spokesman replied.

Organisers hope tonight's match at the Stadium Dall'Aria will help bridge a painful gap. "It's not just a football match," Miroslav Blazevic, the Croatian coach, said. "In fact, I demand that this game not be viewed just as a sporting event but as an example of how politics can be influenced by the inclusive, tolerant spirit of sports."

Briefly jailed in 1993 on charges of match-fixing for Marseilles, Blazevic is now said to be in favour with Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia. His top striker, Davor Suker, has also scored points with the president by actively campaigning for his re-election last autumn.

Tudjman, Blazevic said, welcomed the game. The president, he added, is "the incarnation of the spirit of tolerance that brings us together in sports."

As delegations from both teams sat glumly next to each other during the press conference yesterday, precious little of the spirit of tolerance seemed to have made it into the room. The managers engaged in a ceremonious exchange of niceties, hardly cracking a smile. "It's a delicate situation and this is not a normal game," Zvonimir Boban, the Milan and Croatia striker said: "We wouldn't have wasted so much time talking about friendship if it were. But we're hoping we can overcome this."

The two countries have not competed in a sporting event since 1993, when both reached the quarter-finals of the European Basketball Championships.

While drawing 200 journalists from all over Europe, the match is expected to draw a crowd of less than 5,000. Despite strong local sympathy for Bosnia, the weather is likely to determine the Italian turnout, with only a handful of tickets sold yesterday as rain swept the city. Around 1,000 Bosnian fans are expected, half of them from Sarajevo and the other half from refugee camps in Italy. More fans are expected to make the somewhat easier journey from Croatia, which has regular air links with Italy. The two sets of supporters will be segregated

Croatia, who include the likes of Boban and Alen Boksic of Juventus, impressed during Euro '96 and are the clear favourites, but Bosnia have several players with international experience. Several are veterans of the 1990 Yugoslav national team, the last before the war broke out and the country split into separate republics, and played with and against the Croatians in the old Yugoslav league.

They include Bosnia's 36-year-old captain, Mehmed Bazdarevic, now playing in the French Third Division, and the Turkish-based goalkeeper, Fahrudin Omerovic.