x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Across the barricades

Ciro Blazevic waited and waited, and several minutes after his Bosnia team had taken the field against Turkey on Wednesday, he emerged from the tunnel as though he had just popped in on his way home from a night out.

Miroslav
Miroslav "Ciro" Blazevic soaks up the atmosphere as fans chant his name during the 1-1 draw with Turkey, a result which gives Bosnia a chance of making it to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

ZENICA // Ciro Blazevic waited and waited, and several minutes after his Bosnia team had taken the field against Turkey on Wednesday, he emerged from the tunnel, dressed incongruously in a bright white jacket over black shirt and trousers, as though he had just popped in on his way home from a night out.

Instantly, the chant of "Ciro, Ciro" went up, and as he walked round the pitch to the bench he milked it, waving and clapping, raising an already febrile atmosphere to an extraordinary pitch. Blazevic deserves the acclaim. Even on footballing grounds, what he has achieved is remarkable. Although Bosnia conceded to Emre Belozoglu after four minutes, they hit back through Sejad Salihovic's superb free-kick to draw a pulsating game 1-1, and so retain a four-point lead over Turkey with two games remaining in their World Cup qualifying group.

A win in Estonia next month will guarantee them second place in the group and a play-off for a ticket to South Africa next year. This is not just about football. This is about a divided country finding a cause behind which all sections of society - Muslim, Croat and Serb can rally. "I'm on a mission to bring peace among the people," said Blazevic. "We are too small a country to be divided." When the 74-year-old took charge last summer, World Cup qualification seemed an impossibly distant prospect. In May last year, Bosnia were only able to put a team together for the friendly against Azerbaijan because the youth coach drove round Sarajevo knocking on the doors of players he knew, asking if they fancied a game.

The popular former Barcelona forward, Meho Kodro, had been sacked as coach, 19 players had effectively gone on strike, fans boycotted the team and newspapers alleged widespread embezzlement on the part of the board of the football federation. It was, as the former Real Madrid forward and Kodro's assistant, Elvir Bolic, put it, "yet another farce". Enter Blazevic: volatile, bombastic and hugely charismatic. It could have been like throwing a can of petrol on to a fire, but his tyrannical swagger turned out to have been just what Bosnia needed.

At the end of last season, the teenage Lyon sensation, Miralem Pjanic, admitted he did not care that Blazevic wasn't picking him because he had such fun at national get-togethers. But while stunts like training in the park in front of the team hotel rather than bothering with the drive to the stadium seem calculated to generate a sense of relaxation and fun, Blazevic is also very aware of the wider significance.

Although he seems outwardly calm, he barely slept in the days leading up to the game against Turkey. "I can feel that sport in this country, especially football, can be a step forward in the unification of the country," he said. "But everybody wants to be close to winners, so we have to win." The reminders of Bosnia's recent past are inescapable. The stadium, where Bosnia train when they do travel into Sarajevo, lay on the front line during the siege in the 1990s. When Zeljeznicar returned to play there after the war, they had to clear the pitch of mines.

Edin Dzeko, the Wolfsburg centre-forward, saw out the siege living with 14 other members of his family in his grandparent's one-bedroom flat after his house was destroyed. Blazevic himself did much to help the FK Sarajevo side who escaped the siege by fleeing across the airport and went on a world tour to raise awareness of Bosnia's plight. For all the problems that still blight the country, football is slowly changing things. On Wednesday, after goalkeeper Nemanja Supic had made an extraordinary double save, the crowd chanted his name.

Nothing extraordinary in that, you might think, expect Supic is a Serb and the bulk of the crowd were Muslim. "That's my biggest victory," said Blazevic. "When I heard that, that was my success. We can win the games, but that was my victory." sports@thenational.a