Amongst jubilant scenes in Sarajevo last night, one man stood alone at the centre spot trying to believe what had just happened. Bosnia-Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko realized that his dreams were coming true as he watched his country qualify for their first ever World Cup. It’s a remarkable achievement for Bosnia after years of struggling to recover from the war that threatened to rip their country apart. Until 1992, Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia but when the country began to break up back into its original components (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Kosovo and Serbia) the region was engulfed in a turf war known as the Yugoslav wars. Lasting over eight years, it’s often described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II and decimated the regions, killing thousands and sending millions scrambling for the safety of other European countries. Dzeko was only six years old when war was dropped onto his doorstep and lived through the worst of it as his family decided to stay in Sarajevo and attempt to live a semi normal life. As a quiet skinny kid, the future was uncertain for Dzeko but despite uncertainty Dzeko spent his childhood years with a football attached to his foot. Dzeko was always destined to be a footballer and follow in his father’s footsteps who was a fairly successful professional in Bosnia, who also represented his country. But now Dzeko now stands above his father as a national icon, the man who shot Bosnia to their first ever World Cup. Scoring 10 goals in 10 qualifying games helped Bosnia to claim top spot in Group G ahead of Greece, Slovakia and Lithuania, securing their place in Brazil next summer. Dzeko will insist that it was a team effort and that the whole squad deserves the praise but it was Dzeko who led the line and ultimately got the goals to get them to the World Cup.
One team looking to follow Bosnia to Brazil is Iceland. After achieving the impossible by finishing second in a tough group, Iceland now are 180 minutes away from booking their first trip to a world cup as well. Standing in their way is one of seven teams and will face either Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Ukraine or France in a two legged play off to be contested next month. Iceland, who secured a spot after sterling performances against Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland in the group are a mix of youthful exuberance and experienced professionalism. 35 year old Eiður Guðjohnsen, who has played for Chelsea and Barcelona in the past but now represents Club Brugge, leads the line alongside Ajax’s talented young forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. The pair are supported from midfield by Tottenham’s Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, who is in the best form of his career, and by Sampdoria’s dynamic Birkir Bjarnason and exciting AZ winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson who’s outstanding hat trick against Switzerland last month salvaged a well deserved point at a time when it looked like Iceland’s dream was falling apart.
Having lost at home to Slovenia in June by four goals to two, Iceland went into the game with Switzerland in Berne knowing that they needed to get something from the match to keep their hopes of a qualification spot alive. But after a disastrous start, Iceland found themselves trailing 4-1 with just over 30 minutes to go. What happened next is an example of the new found belief running through this Icelandic squad who rallied to pull the game level with goals from Sigþórsson and a brace from Guðmundsson including a strike in the dying minutes, to secure a valuable point. In the end, that point plus some luck on the final day with Iceland holding on to a draw with Norway as Slovenia failed to beat runaway winner Switzerland, helped Iceland to finish second and keep their dreams alive.
Coach Lars Lagerback will be hoping that his team secures an easier fixture in the draw for the play off’s, with Croatia looking now like the best bet as a beatable team. Having failed to qualify directly and after losing consecutive games to Scotland, the Croatian FA have sacked Igor Stimac as head coach, throwing his team into a state of flux. Under-21 coach Niko Kovac will likely be in charge for the play off matches and looks favourite to secure the job long term after impressing with the junior team but whether he has enough time to revive a now battered Croatia side is still to be seen. Iceland will be weary that if they draw Croatia it might not be an easy game but with the other options being a Ronaldo inspired Portugal or an electric Ukraine side, an injured Croatia might be their best shot.