Bosnia & Herzogovina have plenty in common with Euro 2016 rivals Republic of Ireland. Both have experienced heartache in play-offs and both endured cruel luck at the Stade de France.
Friday’s opponents for the Boys in Green came within 13 minutes plus injury time of qualifying for Euro 2012 having led the French by a single goal through Edin Dzeko in Paris. The hosts were then awarded a controversial penalty when Samir Nasri appeared to be fouled outside the box before stumbling inside. The Man City player picked himself up to blast home from 12 yards and condemn the furious Bosnians to the play-offs.
While Ireland were making light work of Estonia in 2011, the Bosnians were soundly beaten by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, 6-2 on aggregate. Three years previously, on the night Thierry Henry crushed Irish dreams, Bosnia were contesting their first ever play-off, once again facing the Portuguese. Back then, they tasted defeat by a single goal in both legs as the wait to reach a first major finals went on.
Some of the squad – dubbed a golden generation – including Edin Džeko, Vedad Ibišević, and Sejad Salihović had also played in the 2007 UEFA European Under-21 play-offs against the Czech Republic but it was the qualifying game in Paris that has left scars.
The Bosnians and Herzegovinians had to win the game to top Group D and qualify for Euro 2012. The then Manchester City star Edin Džeko put the visitors in front and they held that lead until the 77th minute when Scottish referee Craig Thomson awarded a penalty to France after a foul by Emir Spahic. Nasri ‘s leveller sent Les Bleus to a ninth consecutive major finals.
Safet Susic, the then Bosnian coach, blamed the previous Friday’s qualifier against Luxembourg played on a heavy pitch for fatigue but also pointed to the mental fragility of his players when the dream of a debut qualification was at hand; “When we held the Euros in our grasp, we came under severe psychological pressure.”
Bosnia had been in control of the game in Paris but the French began to turn the screw in the second half. While the manner of the spot-kick decision left them raging, an equaliser was on the cards. The large margin of the play-off defeat to Portugal no doubt still lingers but redemption would arrive with a first ever qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Bosnia & Herzogovina finished top of a group that included Greece and Slovakia to book their tickets to South America and a first appearance at a major finals. In Brazil itself they were drawn in a tough pool with Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. Two losses meant they would fail to prgress to the knockout rounds but they did have the consolation of a World Cup victory over Iran in their last game.
The 3-1 scoreline mirrored the result of Bosnia & Herzogovina’s first ever match against another national side following independence in 1993 facing the same oppostion in Tehran. As they were not yet members of FIFA, the result was never officially recorded. The team’s first FIFA-recognised friendly game came just nine days after the Dayton Peace Agreement which signalled the end of the Bosnian War. It was played in Tirana against Albania on 30 November 1995.
Ireland and Bosnia have only faced each other on one previous occasion as a warm-up to Euro 2012. Shane Long’s goal earned the Irish a 1-0 victory. Going into this weekend’s crunch encounters, the Bosnians are unbeaten at home in their last four competitive matches including a win over Wales but the Republic now stand in their way of reaching a first European Championship. While the Boys in Green have only won two of the seven play-offs they’ve been involved in, Friday’s opposition must also contend with the statistic that they’ve failed to progress on the two occasions they were in the last-chance saloon. Since then Bosnia & Herzogovina may have graced the World Cup stage but just a month ago, Ireland humbled the tournament champions at the Aviva Stadium. Martin O’Neill’s side will hope that German victory can unsettle Bosnian minds again, to add defeat in Dublin to Parisian penalty on the list of qualification heartaches.