Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Bosnia Deserved Better

Bosnia and Herzegovina had the hardest road to this World Cup. Their exit was no easier.

Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport
Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport
Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport

Twenty-nine minutes and two questionable refereeing decisions were enough to seal Bosnia and Herzegovina's fate on June 21. Even before the first half of their match with Nigeria was over, the European side had already suffered a double injustice. The linesman called a good goal incorrectly offside, and Nigeria scored only after its player fouled a Bosnian defender with no call from the referee. There was no scoring in the rest of the game. Bosnia's Edin Džeko had a shot tipped onto the post in the closing seconds before Bosnia crashed out of the tournament.

Advocates of instant replay will seize on this result as motivation for adding more technology to soccer's traditionally Luddite gameplay. (I'll leave that religious dispute for another time.) But what made yesterday tragic rather than merely annoying was the circumstances. Other teams have been the victims of referees' mistakes in past World Cups -- England had a goal incorrectly not given in 2010, and Australia should have had an advantage when an opposing player stayed on the field despite two yellow cards in 2006 -- but the errors were not fatal.  More importantly, for those teams, going to the World Cup was fairly routine. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, a young, still-divided state whose debut in Brazil was the product of years of struggle, these blunders were much more costly.

Among newly independent nations, one of the first acts of the private sector is often to form a governing body for soccer. Ghana became a sovereign state in 1957, and its association came into existence in the same year. The Croatian federation has existed in several forms since 1912, but in its current incarnation only since 1990.

Twenty-nine minutes and two questionable refereeing decisions were enough to seal Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fate on June 21. Even before the first half of their match with Nigeria was over, the European side had already suffered a double injustice. The linesman called a good goal incorrectly offside, and Nigeria scored only after its player fouled a Bosnian defender with no call from the referee. There was no scoring in the rest of the game. Bosnia’s Edin Džeko had a shot tipped onto the post in the closing seconds before Bosnia crashed out of the tournament.

Advocates of instant replay will seize on this result as motivation for adding more technology to soccer’s traditionally Luddite gameplay. (I’ll leave that religious dispute for another time.) But what made yesterday tragic rather than merely annoying was the circumstances. Other teams have been the victims of referees’ mistakes in past World Cups — England had a goal incorrectly not given in 2010, and Australia should have had an advantage when an opposing player stayed on the field despite two yellow cards in 2006 — but the errors were not fatal.  More importantly, for those teams, going to the World Cup was fairly routine. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, a young, still-divided state whose debut in Brazil was the product of years of struggle, these blunders were much more costly.

Among newly independent nations, one of the first acts of the private sector is often to form a governing body for soccer. Ghana became a sovereign state in 1957, and its association came into existence in the same year. The Croatian federation has existed in several forms since 1912, but in its current incarnation only since 1990.

The Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina came into being in 1992, but the war on its territory didn’t end until 1995. So the Bosnians had to wait until 1996 for membership in FIFA and a chance to compete for a spot in the World Cup. Even then, however, they were a long way from qualifying; they came fourth out of five teams in their group vying for a berth in France 1998

That weak start was reflected in the football federation, which itself mirrored Bosnia and Herzegovina’s difficult political beginnings. Back in the 1990s, the federation represented only the Bosnian population of the young nation. Two other federations oversaw separate leagues for Bosnia Serbs and Bosnian Croats. The three finally merged in 2002 but maintained a tripartite presidency. In 2011, FIFA lost patience with the three-way Bosnian structure — it was supposed to be temporary — and sanctioned the federation, making its team ineligible for international competitions.

In the meantime, Bosnia and Herzegovina was going through the arduous process of locating and recruiting Bosnian players from around the world who might join the national team. There were fewer than 4 million Bosnians living in their relatively new home country, with the rest scattered to the winds by politics, economic migration, and war. The midfielder Izet Hajrovic, for example, was born in Switzerland and even played for the Swiss national team before making the one-time switch to the Bosnian squad.

By the time qualifying began for the 2014 World Cup, all of these issues were finally resolved. The Bosnian federation solidified under a single president — Ivica Osim, a Bosnian Croat — and found talented players from as far away as St. Louis, Missouri. The squad won its group with an average margin of 2.4 goals per game. In Brazil, the team put in a solid performance in a loss to Argentina and might have expected a better result against Nigeria. In the end, all of its struggles over the preceding two decades were for nothing.

Soccer aficionados, having seen hundreds of refereeing errors in the past, will simply shake their heads. But this mistake may have much wider consequences. Most Bosnian Croats and Serbs still don’t support their national team. A good run in the World Cup might have changed that, injecting a bit of unity into the country — if only for a short while — as triumph in South Africa did for Spain in 2010. Instead, there will simply be disappointment and a feeling that, once again, nothing comes easily for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Twitter: @altmandaniel

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