If there is one thing that can usually be guaranteed to draw a nation together, it is victory on the soccer pitch.
However, that does not apply in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where only the Muslim community celebrated the national team’s historic qualification for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil, showing that even sporting success has failed to bridge ethnic divisions that still run deep two decades on from its 1990s war.
Bosnia booked their first-ever place at world soccer’s top table with a 1-0 win over Lithuania on Tuesday night, but jubilation was confined mainly to Sarajevo, where the Muslim population is concentrated.
The country’s two other ethnic communities — Serbs and Croats — tend to support the national squads of Serbia and Croatia.
“Like everything else in Bosnia, [soccer] is under the influence of ethnic nationalist politics,” political analyst Tanja Topic told reporters. “There is not a single area in which the three communities are unanimous, starting with the identification of their own state.”
“The victory was not celebrated in any town” inhabited mainly by Bosnian Serbs or Croats, she added.
Since the end of the brutal war in Bosnia in 1995, the country has been divided into two entities: the Bosnian Serb republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation, linked only by loose central institutions.
About 40 percent of the population is Muslim, 30 percent Serb and 15 percent Croat, with the rest from other ethnic backgrounds.
Most of the players in the national team are Muslims, with a sprinkling of the other two ethnicities, leading most Serbs and Croats to consider it a “Muslim” team.
Media outlets’ reaction to the national team’s historic qualification highlighted the divide.
Leading Sarajevo daily Avaz screamed on its front page: “This squad has realized the Bosniaks’ dream: We are going to Brazil.”
“Our heroes have brought joy to every Bosnian,” the paper said.
In contrast, Bosnian Serb official television RTRS did not even show the clash with Lithuania, opting instead to screen Serbia’s qualifier against Macedonia.
Bosnia’s victory was mentioned in passing, without reference to the celebrations taking part in some parts of the country.
In Sarajevo, thousands poured out into the streets, waving Bosnian flags and partying late into the night as they welcomed the players home from Lithuania.
Fans chanting: “Bosnia, Bosnia” blocked traffic in the city, with many waving blue-and-yellow hats — the colors of the national squad.
Tens of thousands also took to the streets in other towns with major Muslim populations, like Tuzla in the northeast, Zenica in central Bosnia, Bihac in the northwest and Mostar in the south.
However, the success of the Zmajevi (Dragons) left Bosnian Serb Ljubomir Petrovic from the northern town of Prnjavor cold.
Petrovic said that he supports only Serbia.
“It is like that, my heart tells me so. I feel no emotions for Bosnia’s squad or the country itself,” he said.
Pero Cecura, a Croat from the southern Bosnian town of Livno, said he would only celebrate “if Croatia qualifies after the playoffs.”
“Whether they qualify for the World Cup or not, I do not care about Bosnia,” Cecura said.