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Bosnia's plan to play football friendly with Russia causes furore, calls for boycott

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By Aleksandar Brezar
Edin Dzeko gestures during the Champions League, Group D soccer match between Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk at the San Siro stadium, 24 November 2021
Edin Dzeko gestures during the Champions League, Group D soccer match between Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk at the San Siro stadium, 24 November 2021   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Bosnia and Herzegovina will play Russia in a friendly match in November, the country's Football Association announced on its official website on Friday, sparking harsh criticism from Bosnia's star players and fans alike.

The game is scheduled to take place in St Petersburg on 19 November, one day before the start of the World Cup in Qatar. 

If the game goes ahead, it will mark the first time a European nation met Russia on the pitch since its national teams were barred from international competition over Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February.

The decision to play the friendly with Russia was made by the Association's urgency committee in an emergency session on Friday, with five votes for and one against.

The captain of the Bosnian team, Inter Milan's Edin Džeko, openly criticised the decision and lashed out at the idea of playing against Russia amidst its aggression in Ukraine.

"I am against playing this match. I am always and only for peace," Džeko told Bosnian outlet Klix. "Unfortunately, I am not the one deciding who Bosnia will play against, but my position on this is clear and it doesn't involve playing this match while innocent people are being killed."

"I stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in these difficult times for them," Džeko, who has won the Premier League twice and the Bundesliga once in his stellar career, concluded.

"The decision is not good. I am speechless,” Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanić told the local media. "The national Football Association [officials] know what I think."

The 32-year-old former Juventus and Barcelona player has made 107 international appearances since his debut in 2008. He has recently signed for Sharjah FC in the United Arab Emirates.

Goalkeeper Asmir Begović — the country's former No. 1 currently plying his trade with Premier League's Everton — took to Twitter, reposting a 2021 tweet criticising the Association for "becoming an eBay page to fill the pockets of criminals" without adding any further comments.

Bosnia 'surely remembers the horrors of war', Ukrainian FA says

Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic all said they would not play their World Cup qualifiers against Russia back in March before Russia's national teams were banned from international competition.

Football's global governing body FIFA and its European counterpart UEFA decided in February that all Russian teams, whether national or club sides, would be suspended from participation in FIFA and UEFA competitions after the invasion.

National team friendlies do not fall under the provision, however, and such matches are allowed as long as they are arranged between two recognised nations. 

Themba Hadebe/AP
Bosnia goalkeeper Asmir Begović makes a a save against Iran during the second half of a group F World Cup football match in at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, 25 June 2014Themba Hadebe/AP

The Russian FA has since scheduled two other friendlies with Iran and Azerbaijan, but playing against the world's 53rd strongest team would set a significant precedent.

While Russian media hailed the match as "the beginning of the end of Russian football's isolation," the Ukrainian FA appealed to UEFA and FIFA on Saturday to prevent the friendly. 

Furthermore, the Ukrainian national football body sent a letter to the Bosnian FA's executive committee, asking it to reconsider its decision because "it looks as if it is aimed at supporting the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine regarding the continuation of the war."

"It is worth noting that the last match of the Ukrainian national team in peacetime was against your team on November 2021," the statement recalled.

"Until this moment, we were sure that your wonderful country remembers the horrors of the war of the 1990s and will not allow the repetition of this ... in the 21th century."

"Your decision to play a friendly match against a country that has ruined the lives of millions of people is surprising," the Ukrainian FA emphasised.

Bosnia’s recent history was marked by a bloody war that saw 100,000 casualties, with two million people becoming either refugees or internally displaced in a country of 3.5 million.

Džeko, Pjanić and Begović are all representative of a generation of sports stars that grew up during the conflict, with Džeko experiencing the siege of Sarajevo as a child, while Pjanić and Begović ended up being refugees in Luxembourg and Canada, respectively.

Drafted to bring the war to an end in 1995, the US-sponsored Dayton Peace Accords created two main administrative units in Bosnia — the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, or RS, and the Bosniak-Croat majority Federation of BiH.

AP Photo/Laurent Rebours
A father's hands press against the window of a bus carrying his tearful son and wife to safety from the besieged city of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, 10 November 1992AP Photo/Laurent Rebours

The two entities were given some autonomy, with an umbrella state-level government with its three-way presidency — with each member representing one of the three main ethnic groups — and a council of ministers overseeing the country's main institutions, including the army, the top judiciary, and tax administration.

Recently, the country has been going through what has been pegged as the worst political crisis since the signing of the Peace Accords, sparked by an attempt by Bosnian Serb leaders to pull out of state institutions, which was widely understood as an attempt at secession.

The national sports teams — which are also run at state-level — are one of the main unifying factors in a country otherwise divided along ethnic lines, and the latest decision by the Bosnian FA is an attempt to sow discord and division, sports journalist and co-host of Opsajd podcast, Saša Ibrulj, told Euronews.

"It's a political decision," Ibrulj said. "There is simply no logic that a country like Bosnia, given its specific political situation and divisions in its own society, would accept to play against Russia right now."

"In theory, it’s quite simple: [the Bosnian FA] received an invitation from the Russian FA, and they accepted it. But the real question is, why are they doing this, and how come they’re doing this at this very moment?"

"The moral and logical conclusion here is that it simply doesn’t make sense," he said.

Although most Bosnians have been supportive of the plight of fellow Ukrainians ever since Moscow launched its aggression against its western neighbour in late February, those more radical amongst the Bosnian Serbs have openly backed Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.

In fact, the local branch of the Russian-based motorcycle club with close ties to Putin, Night Wolves, organised one of the few gatherings in support of Russia in Europe in Banjaluka, the administrative center of the entity of Republika Srpska, in March.

The country is also in the midst of increasingly tense political campaigns as it approaches its general election, scheduled for 3 October.

The Bosnian Serb member of the three-way state-level Presidency, Milorad Dodik has been campaigning on his close relations with Putin, meeting with him for a photo-op in St Petersburg in June and recently announcing another audience with the Russian leader, scheduled for 20 September.

Bosnian FA to choose whether to play the match or suspend its star players

The problem with the national football team came just one week before players were supposed to gather for crucial Nations League matches.

Bosnia currently sits at the top of UEFA competition’s B3 Group, one point clear of Montenegro — who it is scheduled to play against on 23 September.

The Bosnian FA, which has consulted with the likes of Džeko and Pjanić about the Russia friendly before it made the decision, was fully aware that they were against the match and now has to make a much more difficult call whether to cancel the game or penalise its best players, Ibrulj explained.

"In principle, the players can outright refuse to play the match, but that comes with potential disciplinary measures by the FA," he said. "But you're entering into a conflict with your best players over a game you don't actually need."

Michel Euler/AP2011
Bosnia's Edin Džeko celebrates the opening goal with his teammates Miralem Pjanić during a World Cup qualifier against France, 11 October 2011Michel Euler/AP2011

The first-team players previously boycotted a friendly against Iran in November 2020, forcing the former coach Dušan Bajević to bring out the B team. Iran won the game in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, 0-2.

"The match can be played without the star players. However, what would be the point of suspending 10, 12, or 15 players in a country that has a limited pool of quality players right before its key competitive matches," Ibrulj lamented.

The national team's fans, known as BH Fanatikosi, came out with a statement posted on social media on Saturday, calling for the boycott of the match against Russia.

The Bosnian Football Association has remained silent since the announcement, but the opinions within the national football governing body seem to be divided as well. 

The FA's Vice-President Irfan Durić was critical of the call made by his colleagues, telling the local Radio Free Europe branch that the game is "not the best option" for Bosnia. 

At the same time, former football star Zvjezdan Misimović, who now acts as an advisor to the association's president, said sportspeople should not deal with politics.

"We compete against each other on the pitch. Others should deal with politics and other matters," the former Bosnian national team member, who made his mark in top-tier clubs like Wolfsburg and Dynamo Moscow, said.

Amel Emric/AP
Supporters of Bosnia's football team cheer after watching a television broadcast of the 2014 World Cup match between Bosnia and Nigeria in Tuzla, 22 June 2014Amel Emric/AP

The atmosphere in and around the country's football team is a far cry from its peak in 2014, when Bosnia played in the World Cup — the first and last time it qualified for a major tournament — and ranked as the 13th best team in the world at the time. 

If anything, domestic ethnonationalist politicians have tried to co-opt the country's most popular sport ever since Bosnia's independence in 1992. The increasingly tense situation in the country makes football an easy means for destructive political actors to score points with their supporters, Ibrulj explained.

"As a fan, as someone who has been following the Bosnian national team for decades, and as a Bosnian, this is nothing more than a part of the pre-election campaign move."

"Scheduling a match against Russia that is not a must is a deliberate and intentional act to create a negative atmosphere in the national team," Ibrulj, who has been writing about Bosnian and regional football for the likes of The Guardian and The Blizzard, said.

"But each election in the country comes with inflammatory rhetoric and heightened tensions created by the nationalist parties. And football fits quite well into that strategy."

Additional sources • Reuters