Bosnia coach Safet Susic is desperately trying to play down his country’s hopes for a successful World Cup campaign, their first appearance at a major international championships since independence in 1992.
Reaching the knockout final 16 would give the country a welcome distraction from economic woes that have grown since the creation of the country out of a three-year war in which an estimated 100,000 people died.
However, Susic – Bosnian-born but apart from two appearances for his home country played 54 internationals for Yugoslavia – sees a tough challenge in Group F against two-time winners Argentina, African champions Nigeria and Asian heavyweights Iran.
The 58-year-old Susic, who has been in charge since 2009 and twice took Bosnia to play-offs for major finals before losing both times to Portugal for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, says his country must have no illusions.
Susic, voted Paris Saint-Germain player of all time in 2010 (he scored 85 goals in 345 appearances) and Ligue 1’s finest ever foreign player in 2012 (though that was before the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic), has pinpointed the game with Nigeria as the crucial match.
“We certainly could’ve ended up in a more difficult group, so we can’t complain too much,” Susic said in January.
“There’s one huge side who will undoubtedly finish first, Nigeria who always get to the World Cup, and Iran who are completely unknown to us but finished top in qualifying so are definitely a good team.
“What’s certain is that we’ll be playing for qualification in the second match against Nigeria.
“The aim is to get through the first round; that’s what we want to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll succeed.”
Susic, though, believes that qualification for the last 16 will require that his first choice team remains fit and also doesn’t pick up suspensions as he says they do not have the strength in depth to make up for such losses.
“Sure we have some top-class players; Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic, but I would be struggling to fill their places from the players I have available on the bench,” said Susic.
While the Bosnians have the ageing Emir Spahic still marshalling their defence at 33, it is going forward where their main strengths lie.
The artistry of AS Roma’s Pjanic in midield and then the targetman Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, who scored the goal that saw the Bosnians qualify as group winners with a 1-0 win over Lithuania, supplying the goals.
Much may depend on whether Susic and Dzeko make up, as Manchester City striker Dzeko, Bosnia’s leading scorer in the qualifiers, was not best pleased when he claimed to be injured and asked to come off but the coach refused.
“Dzeko should accept that what he has achieved in the past counts for nothing now and it is only what he does from now on that will be judged by the fans, and if it isn’t good enough they will let him know,” Susic told Bosnian daily Dnevni Avaz.
“On that note, the defeat and the performance against Egypt should be a hard lesson learned by Dzeko and the rest of the team.”