32 Teams in 32 Days: Bosnia-Herzegovina
More than once during the World Cup qualifiers, Bosnia-Herzegovina manager Safet Susic said it would be a "crime to football not to play two such good attackers as Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic are." His super-attacking approach might have looked tactically naïve, especially in the matches against stronger opponents, but it paid off, as Bosnia scored 30 goals in 10 matches to reach their first major tournament.
However, things have changed since the new year. Losses against Argentina and Egypt in the past two friendlies could lead Susic to change his mind. It is not just the fact that Ibisevic's form faded; Susic realized that playing with no holding midfielder exposed all of the team's defensive flaws. Bosnia-Herzegovina, with all their options up front, can be lethal when in possession, but they are a team that lacks depth and are very vulnerable at the back.
Difficult to say, but it looks like Susic will drop the idea of playing with two strikers and stick to a 4-2-3-1 formation. There is still a big chance he will switch the formation after their first match against Argentina.
This is the first trip to the World Cup for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
How they reached Brazil
Limited selection options forced Susic to improvise, but that ended up making Bosnia-Herzegovina one of the most attractive sides in European qualifiers. Since the opening game, when eight goals were put past Liechtenstein, Bosnia has focused on attacking football.
"Pape," as the manager is nicknamed back home, paired Dzeko (10 goals) and Ibisevic (eight goals) up front and backed them with creative and skillful artists in Miralem Pjanic and Zvjezdan Misimovic. Bosnia-Herzegovina easily dealt with Latvia and Lithuania, but the crucial points were won when they beat their biggest challengers, Greece, at home (3-1) in March 2013.
In September, Bosnia-Herzegovina were on the verge of an anticlimax, as they trailed 1-0 away against Slovakia after a loss to the same opponent three days earlier in Zenica. However, goals from unlikely heroes Ermin Bicakcic and Izet Hajrovic turned defeat into victory. With Greece breathing down their necks, Ibisevic's goal in the final match in Lithuania triggered the biggest celebration in the team's history.
The numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
Playing their first World Cup match against Lionel Messi's Argentina at Maracana means Bosnia-Herzegovina will enter the tournament with no pressure at all, and this could be an advantage.
Still, not many believe that the road to the round of 16 goes through Argentina. That is why the trip to the heat of Cuiaba's Arena Pantanal on June 21 probably will be the most important match in Bosnia-Herzegovina's history. Nigeria, who have never played against the Bosnians, are widely considered to be joint favourites for the runner-up spot, and Bosnia-Herzegovina are convinced this match will be decisive.
Of course, there is a last hurdle in Iran, but the general opinion is the clash against the champions of Africa will decide their destiny. Susic praises Nigeria and their attacking style but admits "they are not on the same level as before."
Most important player
For a team that has a limited selection and lack of options, the importance of creative players such as Pjanic and emotional leaders such as skipper Emir Spahic is huge. But at the end of the day, goals are what counts, and there Bosnia-Herzegovina turn to Edin Dzeko.
Often criticized for lack of motivation or pace, Manchester City's big man keeps silencing his critics simply by scoring. With 33 goals, Dzeko is the top scorer in Bosnia-Herzegovina's history and their most honoured player.
"The Diamond," as he was nicknamed in Bosnia, counted up to 10 in the qualifiers and added three assists, including one for the crucial goal in the last match in Lithuania. Bosnia-Herzegovina will need to take as many opportunities as possible because they will not have many. For that, they will need a striker with a good hunch for the net who is able to deliver. Dzeko can do that.
Definition of success
Being the only first-timers at the World Cup, Bosnia-Herzegovina have nothing to lose. Considering the fact that the country was in a terrifying war 20 years ago that took more than 100,000 lives and is still recovering from it, the team qualifying for the World Cup is already a huge accomplishment and a sort of overachievement.
But all this has almost no effect on the ambitions and expectations of the public. Even the biggest optimists do not raise big hopes on Bosnia-Herzegovina's opening match, in which they will face Argentina in the iconic Maracana. But most Bosnians think their Dragons, if in good form, should find a way past Nigeria and Iran. Even Susic and his players recognize that is a realistic goal, and anything beyond that would be celebrated equally as the title itself.
How far will Bosnia-Herzegovina go?
The round of 16.
ESPN FC analysts' take: Steve McManaman
Bosnia-Herzegovina come from such a small nation (less than 4 million people) that qualifying is an achievement that can't be overstated. But they are a hard-working, attractive side. They're so strong defensively, and they like to go forward.
However, they are quite inexperienced, which won't help them at all. And being a small nation, they don't have 15, 16 or 17 standouts who play high-quality football every single week; they've got six or seven. Whether that will be good enough on the day to beat the likes of Argentina? I'm not really sure.