Even in defeat, the members of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s soccer team say they made their countrymen proud as the Balkan nation made its World Cup debut after decades of turmoil back home.
A shot in the 85th minute by Vedad Ibisevic trickled in, marking Bosnia’s first goal and setting off a wild celebration from the small contingent of Bosnian fans last night in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium. Argentina won 2-1, with its opening score coming on a Bosnian own-goal in the third minute.
Thousands of Argentines gathered this weekend in Copacabana beach to sing and wave their flags. They spilled onto the street, prompting police to use pepper gas to free up traffic at one point. At a restaurant across the street, about 100 Bosnians had set up their camp.
Mujo Mujdzic, 40, was one of the Bosnians who traveled to support his team, because he said soccer is the only thing going right in a country rife with government corruption.
“Everything is bad, so this is very important for the people,” said Mujdzic, who now lives in Sweden. “We have shown that a small country, with 3.5 or 4 million people, can do this. We had war 20 years ago, and we’re here now. This is amazing.”
Hit hard during the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina lags former partners Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia, which have achieved membership or candidate status in the European Union. The nation’s 1992-1995 war resulted in the death of some 100,000 people and displaced tens of thousands more. Protests earlier this year calling for a new government brought about the worst violence since the war.
Last month, the worst rainfall on record caused flooding in the Balkan nations, leaving thousands homeless and 46 dead, including at least 17 in Bosnia.
“The country’s been through tough times for many years and it’s down to us to hopefully give them some joy,” goalkeeper Asmir Begovic told reporters after the game. “Giving people something to cheer about was fantastic.”
Brazilians joined in cheering the underdog, which U.K.- based bookmaker Ladbrokes gave 18-1 odds to win last night. Bosnia’s jersey was the second-most sold in a store in a Rio mall, after that of the Brazilian national team, O Globo reported. That support spurred Bosnia’s players, Ibisevic told reporters.
“They saw that we were not that many in the stadium, so they wanted to help us,” he said. “We sure heard it.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 2012 gross domestic product measured in purchasing power per capita was 29 percent of the European Union average, the least of all former Yugoslav nations, according to Eurostat. The dual Bosnia-Herzegovina government splits the country largely along ethnic lines between the mostly Muslim Federation and a Serbian part.
Before the game, Bosnians on a subway car crammed full of chanting Argentines joked that the team had never lost a World Cup match. They lost by a single goal to the team Ladbrokes ranks second to win the tournament. Ladbrokes gives odds of 7-2 for Argentina to win the event, meaning a successful $2 wager will return $7 plus the original stake. Bosnia-Herzegovina has odds of 150-1 to win the tournament.
“We took Argentina to the end,” Begovic said. “We pushed them all the way to the limit.''