Bosnia's nearly man
Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30
In 1979, Mehmed Bazdarevic was an 18-year-old midfielder for the Bosnian side Zeljeznicar. He was named captain of the Yugoslavia U-20 side for the World Cup in Japan.
Yugoslavia lost to Poland in that tournament and to the brilliant Argentina side that established Diego Maradona as a global star and, although they beat Indonesia, they came home after the group stage.
Bazdarevic changed planes in Belgrade and on his way to Sarajevo he got talking to a young woman called Marina who was studying languages at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo. She had been born in Dedinje, a district of Belgrade, and travelled home every weekend.
They got on well, but Bazdarevic was having a bad week. "I forgot her phone number," he said. "Look, to be honest, at that time not many footballers carried pens around."
Not even Bazdarevic who, by his own admission, was "a pretty boy" with long curly hair.
It was an incident that was to teach the now Bosnia and Herzegovina manager an important lesson about patience - and about always carrying a pen.
"Eight or nine months later I was on the same plane," he recalled. "This time we were returning from the pre-season tour that we [Zeljeznicar] had in Tunisia.
"I met her again. She was beautiful. I started flirting. She remembered we'd met before. If something was destined to be, that must be it, those two occasions in a plane."
He and Marina are still married and have a daughter, Tea, who is a journalist in France.
It's not entirely clear how serious Bazdarevic is when he speaks of destiny, but there's a sense in Bosnia that something else that was meant to be is about to happen.
Yugoslavia qualified for the 1984 Euro finals and Bazdarevic played in every group game, but that was a difficult tournament and they came home having lost three out of three.
Although he went on to earn 54 caps, he never got the chance to atone.
Yugoslavia didn't qualify for the World Cup in 1986 or Euro '88. They did make it to Italia '90, but Bazdarevic missed out, suspended after spitting at a linesman during a qualifier against Turkey - an incident that became the subject of a recurring sketch on the Sarajevo TV comedy show 'Top Lista Nadrealista'.
They then qualified for Euro '92 but were expelled as war broke out, replaced by the eventual, unlikely winners Denmark, against whom Bazdarevic had scored - one of only four goals he got for his country - in qualifying.
It didn't escape notice that Denmark had been responsible for Yugoslavia's worst day at Euro '84, beating them 5-0.
But perhaps now, as the Euros return to France for the first time since 1984, there is a chance for Bazdarevic to gain some personal redemption.
France is his second home. He played there for Sochaux and Nimes, and has managed Istres, Grenoble and Sochaux. For a time, he and his wife ran a sweet shop there, although that seems to have been more of an effort to facilitate Marina's visa than a serious plunge into the confectionary business.
Whatever happens against Ireland, Bazdarevic's impact on this Bosnia side cannot be denied.
When he took over, they'd taken just two points from four games - a run that included a home defeat to Cyprus, and their hopes of qualifying for the Euros seemed slim.
He was fortunate, perhaps, that two of his first four games were against Andorra, which allowed a sense of momentum to be built, and he benefited from the return of the Schalke defender Sead Kolasinac from injury and by the veteran Hamburg centre-back Emir Spahic's decision to come out of retirement.
However, there can be no doubt that the mood among the squad now is far better than in the final year under the previous manager Safet Susic.
Susic's problems began when, having qualified for the World Cup fielding a 4-4-2, he seemed to lose faith with his system and began experimenting with a 4-5-1.
That meant Herthan Berlin's Vedad Ibisevic missed out - something that many felt made little sense given the relatively small pool of top-class talent Bosnia have to draw on and that, on a personal level, seemed unfair on a stalwart.
When Susic reacted to a late injury by calling up his nephew, the promising but unproven midfielder Tino-Sven Susic, it added to the unease and whatever credibility he had left was shredded by a tactically incoherent defeat to Nigeria in the second group game in Brazil.
The first part of Bazdarevic's job was diplomatic, persuading players that the national team is still worth fighting for.
Home wins over Israel and Wales and a dramatic 3-2 victory in Cyprus, achieved through the improbable medium of two goals by Deportivo La Coruna midfielder Haris Medunjanin, got them into the play-offs.
"We have a difficult task and we must do it in the best way," said Bazdarevi.
"Ireland are a serious team and it will be difficult in Zenica. They are football nation and have a motivated team. Regardless of some problems with injuries, they have enough quality players who play in strong clubs, and will be a formidable opponent."
As they reach the crunch, Bosnia's injuries have cleared up and Bazdarevic suddenly has a full squad to choose from.
There were even signs with his goal for Roma against Lazio last weekend that Edin Dzeko, for so long the talisman of this side, may be returning to form.
Destiny, perhaps, is once again laying the path of Bazdarevic's fulfilment. (© Independent News Service)