Dzeko ready to fire a dagger into Irish hearts
As the football icons of Bosnia & Herzegovina set foot on the World Cup stage in the summer of 2014, their troubled nation dared to smile once again.
The devastating memories of one of the savage and brutal wars that was played out on the fields and streets of their beloved nation between April 1992 and December 1995 will take time to fade, yet their sport has played a central role in their nation’s rebirth.
So when Martin O’Neill and his Republic of Ireland do battle at the Bilino Polje stadium in Zenica for the first leg of the Euro 2016 play-off, they will be facing a set of sportsmen whose eagerness to delight their people runs deeper than most.
Bosnia is still trying to find its voice after all that has gone on, with the unthinkable war crimes committed against Bosnians during the conflict still being uncovered to this day.
Yet this battle-scarred nation has staggered back to its feet, inspired in no small measure by the triumphs of the soccer heroes.
The exploits of Bosnian talismen Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begovic and Miralem Pjanic have not only brought pride to their scarred people back home, but also a perception that their nation is worth something after all.
Make no mistake, this is still a troubled land, with peace in Bosnia very much of the uneasy variety.
Classrooms remain divided as Bosnian kids are told not to sit next to their Croatian classmates, with similar poisonous animosity prevailing through all generations in their society.
“I try to help to make a change in my country, to show people that they can be friends even if they are from a different culture, a different perspective,” states former Manchester City striker Dzeko, who is also his nation’s first UNICEF ambassador.
“I came into this world just as the conflict started in my country and my early life was nothing but fighting, war and bullets in the walls of the buildings.
“Maybe my first memory is of gunfire when I was going to sleep at night.
“My family home was destroyed by the bombs and we had to move everything we owned to my grandparents house. There were a lot of tears when I was growing up, but we have to move on.
“The war created so much hatred, so much mistrust among people.
“My message has always been that it does not matter where you come from, you can be a friend with someone. So long as he is a good man, this is all that matters.”
Dzeko is cherished by his adoring public as he is one of the boys who emerged from the war to become a national hero, yet some have questioned whether his form has merited a place in this Bosnian side of late.
His struggles to make an impact at Man City and Roma have dented his gloss a little and yet he will always have a special place in the hearts of Bosnian soccer lover.
Dzeko’s role in guiding Bosnia & Herzegovina to their first World Cup finals at Brazil 2014 cemented his status as the darling of the nation, with his 10 goals in qualifying a testament to his status as the team’s leader.
Not even a disappointing group stage exit could dampen the pride Bosnia’s felt as their anthem rang out at the Maracana for a clash against Lionel Messi’s Argentina, with a defeat against Nigeria ending their adventure all too soon.
Bosnia had arrived on the international stage and after the national soccer federation used grants from FIFA and UEFA to develop sparkling new training facilities designed to promote the search to find the next Dzeko or Begovic, the expectation was that they could become tournament regulars.
Yet Bosnia were arguably thrown into an even more competitive qualifying group than Ireland, with a talent-laden Belgium, a Gareth Bale inspired Wales and the dangerous Israeli’s all in their Group B mix.
Dzeko contributed seven goals from just seven appearances in Bosnia’s Euro 2016 campaign that started horribly with a 2-1 home defeat against Cyprus, before a 3-0 defeat against Israel sparked the departure of coach Safet Susic.
His replacement Mehmed Bazdarevic has altered the side’s tactics a little - playing a more direct game as he looks to exploit the talents of target man Dzeko - and the break he needed arrived when Israel lost at home to Cyprus as his side beat Wales in their penultimate qualifier.
A play-off place has long since been the best Bosnia could hope for in their Euro 2016 push and now that they have a crack at Ireland, Dzeko is dampening down a perception back home that his nation ‘got lucky’ in the draw.
“Ireland played two games against Germany and did not lose,” added Dzeko. “We know they will be difficult opponents. They play a lot of long balls and will be dangerous from set-pieces, but we have another chance to qualify now and this is all we wanted.
“They are missing some important players for the first leg, but we have to be at our maximum to make progress. Getting a good result in the first leg is crucial.”
Joy has been in short supply for this generation of Bosnians, but their football team continues to offer a light of hope.
Ireland will be fighting against a side motivated by more than just sporting dreams in the Euro 2016 play-offs.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA’S KEY MEN
Asmir Begovic (Chelsea) – This experienced stopper has seen plenty of first team action at Chelsea this season following Thibaut Courtois’ injury. He will be a formidable last line of defence for Ireland to get past.
Emir Spahic (Hamburg) – This 35-year-old defender is a mainstay of the Bosnian defensive set-up. He is closing in on a century of caps for his country.
Miralem Pjanic (Roma) – Linked with a €45m move to Liverpool and Manchester United last summer, this classy performer stayed with Roma for now. However, big money move may well be his destiny in 2016.
Vedad Ibisevic (Hamburg) – Scored his country’s first goal in tournament football as he fired Bosnia’s goal against Argentina at the last World Cup and he was also on target against Wales in the Euro 2016 qualifier last month.
Edin Dzeko (Roma) – One of the most famous faces in Bosnian history will be the primary threat to Ireland’s defensive line in the Euro 2016 play-offs. Dzeko is one of the best target men in the modern game.