Blazevic manages to unite Bosnia

Players on strike and embezzlement claims but now a superstitious septuagenarian may go to World Cup

It was last May that football in Bosnia-Herzegovina hit rock bottom. The manager, the former Barcelona forward Meho Kodro, quit; the players went on strike in support of him; fans enforced a boycott; and newspapers published allegations of embezzlement against the board of the football federation. Things were so bad that in order to fulfil a friendly fixture against Azerbaijan, the youth coach was left driving round knocking on the doors of any professional he knew to see if they fancied a game. A local walking into the team hotel to have an ice cream with his girlfriend was mistaken for one of the late call-ups, and had a key pressed into his hand by the kit-man who then berated him for being late.

"Ridiculous," said Kodro's assistant, Elvir Bolic. "This is just another farce perpetrated by individuals who are taking Bosnian football nowhere." Even worse, Bosnia had been drawn in a World Cup qualifying group with the European champions, Spain, one of the Euro 2008 semi-finalists, Turkey, and a Belgium side widely held to be fast improving.

They should, logically, have had little chance of avoiding embarrassment, never mind reaching the World Cup, but then logic and Ciro Blazevic have never had much to do with each other. This, after all, is the man who attributed the Yugoslav league title to which he led Dinamo Zagreb in 1982 to his lucky white silk scarf, and then wore a lucky gendarme's cap throughout the 1998 World Cup.

Appointing a bombastic, superstitious septuagenarian as manager was a bold response but, 16 months later, Bosnia stand on the brink of a qualifying play-off for South Africa 2010. Following yesterday's 2-0 win in Armenia, they could secure at least a play-off place if they beat Turkey in Zenica on Wednesday and for all the input of the likes of the Wolfsburg forward Edin Dzeko, his playmaking club-mate Zvjezdan Mismiovic and the Montpellier defender Emir Spahic, Blazevic is taking the credit.

Mention Blazevic to Slaven Bilic, who played under him when Croatia finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and he can't help himself but roll his eyes. "I'm not saying he was a bad coach or a great coach," Bilic said, "but he was the ideal coach for us. He would gradually motivate you. He knows every day in his head that he's going to make a small incident to wake everybody up a bit, and then he's going to do this, then he's going to tell them to go out to a nightclub.

"Then at team meetings he'd be talking about, say, Estonia like it's fucking Brazil. You know he's lying; you know it isn't true, but you say: 'Fuck, yeah, it's going to be hard.' Or you'd be playing Argentina and he'd say: 'Argentina, not a bad team, not a bad team, but none of their players play for the best teams in Europe.' So you'd look at him and say: 'What the fuck are you talking about?' But it worked." Blazevic isn't big on facts. He says he is 73, but an assiduous Bosnian journalist checking the records of the church near where he was born discovered he is rather older. He promised not to publish the details if Bosnia beat Belgium in their next two games, and they did, 6-3 on aggregate.

His great gift is raising morale. The 19-year-old midfielder Miralem Pjanic has been a sensation at Lyon but is not guaranteed a place in the national team. For some tyros that would be a source of major frustration, but not him. "I don't mind," he said. "It's just fun being here." The older players, who it might have been thought would be more cynical, are just as enthusiastic. "The spirit within the squad is tremendous," said Spahic. "We're like a big family. I think that's the secret."

Not that Blazevic gets everything right. When he stood for the presidency in 2005, he polled only 0.8 per cent. He turned down the young Robert Prosinecki, vowing to eat his coaching diploma if he ever made it as a player. He said he would hang himself from the goal-frame if his Iran side failed to beat the Republic of Ireland in a play-off to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

He was wrong on both counts, but coaching diploma and neck remain intact, and that is something for which all of Bosnia can be grateful.

And if they win on Wednesday, it may be worth him considering standing in the next round of elections.

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