KAUNAS, Lithuania -- The night was drawing to a close, the adrenaline starting to yield. Thousands of Bosnians were in Laisves Aleja, the main street of Kaunas, celebrating their victory over Lithuania and their first-ever qualification for a major tournament, when one of the guys started singing. "Nema vie baraža!" The whole street joined him in this explosion of relief. "No more playoffs," they chanted.
It was, in a way, a celebration of the end of the old era -- the one in which Bosnians were used to losing matches like this. After independence, the national team was always one step away from the big scene, stumbling at the last hurdle. That happened in 2004, when the generation including Hasan Salihamidzic, Sergej Barbarez, Mo Konjic and Elvir Bolic failed to beat Denmark and secure a place at the European championship in Portugal. Two years later they were beaten by Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade in what was another tie-break qualifier, this time for the 2006 World Cup.
The current generation, under Miroslav Blazevic's guidance, were looking to write their names in history in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, but they were denied a place in South Africa in another playoff encounter, against the superb Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal side. In the last European championship qualifying campaign, they managed to blow two chances. They were on the verge of beating France in Paris in the last match of the group stage, only to be denied by a controversial late Samir Nasri penalty, and that was followed by another playoff disappointment against Portugal.
"I would prefer if we finish third than to go in the playoffs again," said Adi Hodzic, a 29-year-old supporter who travelled from Bosnia and Herzegovina via Zadar and Oslo. "I wouldn't watch that match. At all. I think I wouldn't survive."
In a way, it felt natural when Bosnia lost to Slovakia at home in September. It looked like a familiar set-up -- the country was in euphoria, travel packages for Brazil were already being sold, people were already celebrating something that had not yet been achieved. At the same time, Greece were collecting points and waiting for their chance. After Slovakia's Martin Skrtel scored an almost unbelievable own goal in Athens on Friday, it looked as if destiny had a hand in this one as well.
As the time passed at S. Dariaus ir S. Gireno Stadium in Kaunas, the story started to take a familiar format. You could take the knife and cut the nervousness in the air that surrounded not just supporters but the team and their coaching staff. Bosnia were dominating, but it looked sterile, forced and constrained, raising doubts. The hosts parked the bus and waited. The counters were more and more dangerous, and when Senad Lulic's goal was disallowed because he was offside, it looked to be another potential highlight among the pub stories for future generations -- the woodwork saved the Portuguese, the penalty saved the French, the offside saved the Lithuanians. Another major competition looked like it might slip away.
But what is different with this generation is that they are more mature. They've learned their lessons, and done so the hard way, losing important matches. They did not want to allow another disappointment -- not on the night when 5,000 Bosnians travelled to Lithuania. Bosnia continued to press, having the boost of the support at their back, until Stuttgart's Vedad Ibisevic converted Edin Dzeko's cross from the left. The stands exploded, but -- while there was a mixture of emotions -- there was no overriding sense of relief. Instead, the fear increased.
When German referee Felix Zwayer blew his whistle for the last time on Tuesday night, for a second you could feel the silence on the stands and the pitch. It was as if Bosnians -- players, coaches, supporters, journalists, everyone –- were asking each other what just happened. Is it true? Did they really make it? Nothing is wrong? Like someone had to whisper to them: "You really did it -- you are at the World Cup."
People did not know how to react -- not used to celebrations, they looked confused. Some went down on their knees praying, others just sat there and cried; players ran across the pitch with their eyes and mouths wide open. It was one of those emotional moments that leaves a deep imprint -- something that, no matter whether you were a Bosnian or just a neutral enjoying the match, would stay with you through your whole life.
"I can't believe that this just happened," Roma's Miralem Pjanic said before bursting into tears live on national television. "This is why I play football -- this feeling."
Ibisevic's goal marked not just a historic moment for Bosnian football and the end of the most successful campaign ever, and did not just signal the biggest celebration in the modern history of a troubled country; it also erased the aura of losing that floated over their heads for the last 15 years.
"This is one of the best days in our careers -- the one that we'll talk about to our grandkids," said Asmir Begovic, the Stoke City goalkeeper. "And we'll do our best in Brazil to make these people even more proud."
Thousands of Bosnians welcomed the national team in Sarajevo on Tuesday night as national heroes. The open-top bus circled through the city; the players saluted and thanked the fans from a balcony in the city centre. People were dancing on the streets the whole night. It was a real champions' parade -- the parade Bosnia never had before, and probably never will have again.
Because, for the Dragons, qualification is the equivalent of winning the world title.