Yugoslavia World Cup 2014: What If Yugoslavia Had Stayed Together?

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What if the South had won the American Civil War? What if Archduke Ferdinand had never been shot in Sarajevo? What if Pearl Harbor was not bombed and the United States hadn’t entered World War Two? What if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War? Alternate histories are an interesting game to play in the study of international history. One could go on forever on these subjects, creating scenarios in one’s mind over scotch in the local pub. Here is one more, a scenario very pertinent to modern history: What if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart in the 1990s?

As a football fan it is hard not to bring this particular alternate history to mind (The Guardian mentioned it 7 years ago), especially during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Half a world away and twenty years removed from the violence in the Balkans, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina proudly represent independent nations on the green fields of Brazil. Both teams had monumental tasks in their first matches but can hold their heads high—Croatia fell victim to some questionable refereeing in their first match against hosts Brazil, while Bosnia put up a good fight before ultimately coming up short against an Argentina backed by Messi’s brilliance.

But the Balkan flavor of the 2014 World Cup does not end with the big names of Luka Modric and Edin Dzeko. They are merely where it begins. Take the unforgettable finish to yesterday’s meeting between Ecuador and Switzerland as an example.



Ecuador went up early through a headed goal by Enner Valencia and Switzerland were left looking lost through the first forty-five minutes, facing a 1-0 deficit at half-time. Switzerland needed a spark, and it came from the region many have termed the “powder-keg of Europe”—the Balkans. Just two minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute Admir Mehmedi capitalized on some poor Ecuadorian defending to level proceedings at 1-1. Mehmedi himself is an ethnic Albanian, born in Gostivar, Macedonia (in the northwest corner of the country, near the Kosovo border) in 1991, before moving to Switzerland at the age of two.

Then came the best finish to any of the matches so far. Ecuador looked to have a chance in the third minute of stoppage time when Valon Behrami dove in to block the shot, before gaining control of the ball. Behrami then orchestrated the counter attack, taking the ball across the half way line and setting up the play that eventually gave another second half substitute, Haris Seferovic, the chance to net the winner for Switzerland and settle the final score at 2-1.

Valon Behrami is an ethnic Albanian, born in what was then Titova Mitrovica (now just Mitrovica, a city has seen sporadic ethnic clashes between Serbs and Kosovars since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and subsequent sovereignty in 2012) in present-day Kosovo before moving to Switzerland at age five. Meanwhile, the goal scorer Seferovic was born in Switzerland in 1992 to Bosnian parents who emigrated in the 1980s. What is especially remarkable is that of Switzerland’s World Cup squad of 23 players, an astounding 8 have some Balkan connection:


Granit Xhaka: The Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder was born in Basel in 1992 to Albanian parents.

Valon Behrami: As discussed above, the Napoli midfielder was born in present-day Kosovo in 1985 before emigrating to Switzerland in 1990.

Blerim Dzemaili: The 28 year old Napoli midfielder was born in Tetovo, current day FYR Macedonia to an Albanian family before emigrating to Zurich at age 4.

Xherdan Shaquiri: Bayern Munich’s star winger was born in Gnjilane, Yugoslavia (now present-day Kosovo) in 1991 before emigrating to Switzerland a year later.

Haris Seferovic: As discussed above, the Real Sociedad striker was born to Bosnian Parents in Sursee, Switzerland in 1992.

Mario Gavranovic: The twenty four year old FC Zurich forward was born in Lugano to Bosnian Croat parents who emigrated from Gradacac (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1988.

Josip Drmic: The young Bayer Leverkusen striker was born in Lachen Switzerland in 1992 to a Croatian family.

Admir Mehmedi: As discussed above, the Freiburg striker was born in Gostivar, Macedonia in 1991 to an Albanian family before emigrating to Switzerland in 1993.


Sports Illustrated wrote an enjoyable article on the Bosnian team in the run up to the World Cup and I would argue that the story of Switzerland’s Balkan contingent is equally enthralling. Certainly it begs the question: what if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart and lost such athletic talent? Obviously sport has a nature vs. nurture element to it—would these footballers have been able to work their way up through the less developed youth systems in an intact Yugoslavia? How much of their progress was aided by having access to modern training facilities in Switzerland? Would they have chosen to represent a Yugoslavian team over the team of their adopted homeland (if their families had even emigrated in the first place)? And what about all the other variables that life throws at us, so far out of any individual’s control?

I argue that they would have had a fighting chance—after all, Yugoslavia was a respectable team before the dark days of the 1990s. They were semi-finalists in the World Cup twice and Quarterfinalists once, in 1990. And who can forget that strange twist of history—because of the wars Yugoslavia was disqualified from the 1992 European Championships after qualifying and was replaced by Denmark . . . the team that went on to win the tournament.

Twenty years on the reverberations of the conflict spread beyond just the teams qualified for this World Cup. The current captain of the Serbian national football team (which did not qualify) is Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic, one of the best defenders in the world today. Tiny Montenegro, a country of just over 650,000 and the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, boast two Premier League players on their squad and gave England a run for their money during qualification for the 2014 World Cup after narrowly missing out on a spot in the 2012 European Championships in a playoff to the Czech Republic. And I won’t even count Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic—the mercurial striker who is currently one of the world’s best—since his Bosniak father (and Croatian mother) emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s, long before the collapse. But, if an intact Yugoslavia had fielded a team in 2001 when Zlatan first made his debut for Sweden, might he have opted for the country of his parent’s birth? We will never know, but it’s worth a thought.

This year’s favorites may be Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, and Spain to name a few but—if only for a moment—imagine the possibilities in this World Cup if modern history had taken a different turn.

Top Five World Cup 2014 Shirts and Top Five Classic World Cup Shirts


Although I am not a huge World Cup fan since the tournament has become the definition of industrial football and mainly a cynical money making machine in recent years, I still can’t ignore the shirts. With the games in full swing I thought I would do what some sites have been doing and rank the top five shirts from World Cup 2014, along with the top five from the past World Cups that I have watched. As with everything on this blog all opinions are my own, so don’t be offended if your favorite shirt—or team—does not make an appearance. Personally, it is always hard to rank the newer shirts because the old ones hold a special place in my heart but here goes nothing.


World Cup 2014:

Number 5: Japan (Adidas)

Japan 2014 World Cup Home Kit (1) Japan 2014 World Cup Home Kit (2)

Japan 2014 World CUp Away Kit 4 Japan 2014 World CUp Away Kit 5

Images Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/06/exclusive-japan-13-14-2013-2014-2014.html


The “electricity” colored away shirt obviously needs no explanation, but the blue home shirt has a few details that make it, in my opinion, one of the best shirts of the 2014 World Cup. The rising sun motif around the badge is special, giving a sort of Japanese authenticity to the shirt. On the back, however, is a pink stripe that gives this jersey a unique detail that—when seen in person—really gets your attention. Adidas did a nice job with the socks as well, carrying that color through the kit instead of leaving it as a one-off detail on the shirt. It also harkens back to the red used in Japan’s 1995-96 kit, manufactured by Asics.


Numbers 4 and 4.5: Cameroon Home (Puma)

Cameroon 2014 World Cup Home Kit

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/10/unique-cameroon-2014-home-and-away-kits.html

Ghana Away (Puma)

Ghana 2014 World Cup Away Kit 1

Images Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/11/ghana-2014-world-cup-home-kit-leaked.html


This is really a tie, and I chose to include both because each team’s other jersey (Cameroon Away and Ghana Home) are too light colored to see any of the details which make the darker colored shirts so special. Apparently the design on the Cameroon shirt is taken from cave paintings, with “Les Lions Indomptables” written across each line. This comes from the team’s nickname, “The Indomitable Lions”.

Ghana’s away shirt is a similar design, this one with Ghana’s nickname “The Black Stars”. The sleeve details are also good looking—while not being as eye-catching as the Kente design on the home shirt, the dark red is just too nice of a color to be ignored. I might still prefer Ghana’s 2012-13 kit (the fade is something I enjoy in shirts) but this year’s is still a unique piece produced for Ghana, and that is worth something in itself.


Number 3: Belgium (Burrda Sports)

Belgium 2014 World Cup Home Kit Belgium 2014 World Cup Away Kit Belgium 2014 World Cup Third Kit

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2014/02/burrda-belgium-2014-world-cup-kits-jerseys.html


This is the only shirt in this World Cup manufactured by the Swiss/Qatari company Burrda Sports—perhaps they’re getting ready for 2022? All three of these shirts carry elements of the Belgian flag, with the black away version the best looking in my opinion with the red and yellow sash across the chest. Belgium are being picked by many as a dark horse; while the outcome of their World Cup campaign may be uncertain one thing is certain—they’ll look good, win or lose.


Number 2: Germany (Adidas)

Germany 2014 Home kit Adilite 1 Germany 2014 World Cup Away Kit (1)

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/05/germany-1314-2013-2014-world-cup-home.html


Germany’s white home shirt has a “V” design around the neck, which doesn’t represent too much of a change from their jerseys in previous years. The away shirt, however, represents a completely new move for “Die Nationalmannschaft”. Even if the red and black hoops and collar buttons make this shirt reminiscent of a rugby shirt I still found it extremely attractive when I saw it in person. In 2006 Germany moved to the black and red color scheme for their away shirts before moving to black for the 2010 World Cup. I think this represents the best Germany away shirt since they moved away from their classic emerald green kits (the Irish-looking green of Euro 2012 doesn’t count for me).


Number 1: Russia (Adidas)


Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/11/russia-2014-world-cup-home-kit-leaked.html

Russia 2014 World Cup Away Kit (1)

For me, Russia’s away shirt is without a doubt the best jersey in the 2014 World Cup, and I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. Just below the collar is a view of the earth from space which then fades into white. Of course, this is in memory of the Soviet space program and Yuri Gagarin—the first human being in space. This shirt, of course, has a political connotation as well considering recent developments in Russia. As Putin looks to re-assert Russia’s strength in the modern era, this shirt advertising the greatness of Russia’s past on the world stage makes a bold nationalist statement. It will be interesting to see if this shirt starts a trend of countries visually representing their histories on football shirts—football shirt nationalism by using elements of The Modern Janus Theory (made famous by Tom Nairn).



Classic World Cups:

Number 5: Nigeria World Cup 1994 (Adidas)

Nigeria Home and Away Kits World Cup 1994

Image Courtesy of: http://kirefootballkits.blogspot.com.tr/2011/10/nigeria-kits-world-cup-1994.html



Dancin’ the night away–in pajamas?!

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footballfoundout.com/top-five-worst-world-cup-shirts-ever/

I have no idea what this design is but it is definitely unique. Perhaps this was the beginning of the trend of providing special designs for African teams that we see now, since I have never seen this design used in any other team’s shirt. The white version looks a little pyjama-esque (hence its ranking as the ugliest World Cup shirt in history on one of the above lists) but, for my money, its still an unforgettable shirt. And that is what I look for.


Number 4: Croatia World Cup 1998 (Lotto)


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.croatiaweek.com/tag/brazil/page/3/


This shirt really needs no introduction as it is a piece of history, one of many legendary designs worn by Croatia since 1996. What makes this shirt special is the fact that just half the shirt is checkered. No one will forget Croatia’s historic run to third place while wearing this shirt, fueled by legends Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, and Zvonimir Boban (whose kick, some say, started a war). I’m counting on Bosnia-Herzegovina to make a similar run in this World Cup, even if their shirts aren’t quite as special.


Number 3: Mexico World Cup 1998 (Aba Sport)


Luis Hernandez makes another World Cup disappointent look good

Image Courtesy Of: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1936489-mexicos-best-and-worst-world-cup-jerseys/page/4


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.oldfootballshirts.com/en/teams/m/mexico/old-mexico-football-shirt-s3660.html


A few lists, including the one at the link above, have cited this shirt as one of the best World Cup shirts of all time and for good reason. This shirt is in Mexico’s classic shade of green with an interesting detail unique to Mexico: printed into the fabric is a design of the Aztec calendar. While this year’s Mexico design by Adidas is among the better designs on display this summer, I still think that nothing can come close to the France ’98 kit.


Number 2: USA World Cup 1994 (Adidas):

US national team defender Alexi Lalas jumps in the Roy Wegerle

Alexei Lalas jumps for joy at World Cup ’94, Roy Wegerle isn’t sure what to make of his kits

Images Courtesy Of: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_spot/2014/05/19/u_s_soccer_denim_kit_the_horrifying_true_story_of_the_ugliest_jerseys_in.html


This shirt has been derided by so many that it feels funny posting it as the number two best shirt—please see articles at Mashable.com and Slate.com for more on this shirt (albeit from a negative angle). Personally, I do not see why this shirt has so many critics–as you can see above, Alexi Lalas seems more than enthused to be wearing the shirt (!) even if Roy Wegerle gives us a more bemused expression.

The point of a football shirt, in my opinion, is to represent a country in a unique and instantly recognizable way. For me, that is exactly what the United State’s 1994 kit did. The denim look was certainly unprecedented, and it is true that it bore no relation to anything Adidas had—or has since—produced. But it was unique. In fact, it was uniquely American. As a kid watching the 1994 World Cup in I didn’t even notice the denim factor—I just thought it was a blue background with white stars, a representation of the national flag, which is fine. And for those critics of this shirt, I’d like to point out that if a USA shirt need be criticized the USA away shirt for the 2014 World Cup (a shirt I myself own) looks more French than it does American.

I would like to think that like a fine wine, football shirts also get better as the years go by. That sentiment is confirmed for me by the number one shirt on this list . . .


Number 1: Germany World Cup 1998 (Adidas)


Image Courtesy of: http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lwcb1unOX11r6mwuno1_1280.jpg



Klinsmann et al make bracing for impact look good . . . or at least half-way decent

Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2010/article-1282545/John-Motson-Ten-greatest-World-Cup-games.html

And now we come to the shirt that—I think—is hands down the best shirt in World Cup history. If Helen of Troy’s face is the one that launched a thousand ships, then this is—undoubtedly—the design that launched a thousand kits. After Germany made this Adidas “basket weave” pattern famous the design became a staple for Adidas kits around the world between 1995 and 1996. The reason this kit in particular is so stunning is that the bold colors of the German flag really jump off the shirt’s white background and right into the viewer’s eyes. Adidas really did their country justice with this well designed shirt, a shirt that hasn’t lost any of its luster twenty years on.




Asim Ferhatovic Hase/Kosevo Stadium/Olympic Stadium – Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina – FK Sarajevo

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The walk to the Asim Ferhatovic stadium is one that truly gives the casual visitor a chance to understand the magnitude of the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. Although I was a young child at that point, I can still remember summer nights in Turkey listening to my father explaining to me the details of the war, taken from the black and white pages of the International Herald Tribune. On the way to the stadium you are surrounded by the alabaster white graves of thousands who lost their lives in a civil conflict so gruesome that Europe is still unable to come to terms with it.

The open areas leading to the stadium made me wary of unexploded land mines, even though I knew that this stadium has seen many visitors before me. It was the paranoia of a young college student, exacerbated by the pages of his Lonely Planet. At the time I visited I had already acquired my FK Sarajevo shirt from the Nike shop in town, but I’m still glad I visited. The graffiti on the walls of the stadium serves as this blog’s header, as well as the background on my computer.

The stadium, named after Bosnian footballer Asim Ferhatovic Hase, has a fairly large capacity of 37,500. It was built in 1947 but renovated in 1984 for the Winter Olympics, a time that Sarajevo was the centerpiece of a cosmopolitan Yugoslavia. For a more detailed account of my visit please see this travel writing piece, an excerpt of which is below:

Killing Fields and Playing Fields

In the morning Sarajevo looks different, less intimidating and more of the intimate provincial city that it is. Surrounded by hills from which Serbian artillery rained terror during the 1992-1993 siege, the city is a cozy enclave of Ottoman culture in the middle of the Balkans. At night it had felt different, more menacing and impersonal. On arrival, across from the bus station, I had been met with a bombed out building, its stones crumbling. It evoked the warning from my guide book-“Stay away from war-damaged buildings!”

I set out early, before the repressive mid-summer heat descended over the city, walking down the central boulevard Marshal Tito, named after the man who had held a fragile country together by a combination of romanticism and brute force—more of the latter than the former. The apartment blocks lining the street were scarred by bullet holes, a reminder of the hell that was the city in the early 1990s. On the ground were infamous “Sarajevo Roses”, scars left in the concrete from Serbian shells that are now filled with red paint as monuments to the civilians who fell, unwilling, into a conflict they had no control over. They were only pawns of greater powers, as those before them had been. Bosnia was involved in great power tug-of-wars since its early history; first it was a tug of war between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, later it was the Russian and Austrian empires, and most recently it was the destructive nationalisms of Croatia and Serbia.

I turned off the main street at the Gazi Husrevbey Mosque towards the outskirts of the city looking for the Asim Ferhatovic Olympic stadium, part of the Olympic complex built for the 1984 Winter Games. That was a time when Sarajevo was the multi-cultural centerpiece of Yugoslavia, a time when Yugoslavia received a much needed economic boost from hosting a global sporting event. The small football pitches around the main stadium were now mass graves, a silent yet startling reminder of the brutality of human beings. For as far as the eye could see alabaster white graves stood shining in the summer sun, each telling a separate story. Shaking off the morbid feelings, I hesitantly walked across an abandoned lot towards the stadium gates (again, heeding the mine warnings of my guide book). No one was present around the stadium, but I took pictures of the graffiti on the stadium walls—here I saw “Never forget-Srebrenica”, a reference to the mining town in Eastern Bosnia once known for its salt mines, and now synonymous with the massacre of thousands of Bosnian muslims masterminded by Radovan Karadzic and his cohorts. It was a telling reminder of the scars that still lay below the surface of modern Bosnia’s calm culture, a history with which the country is still struggling to reconcile itself.

After a few minutes of photography I headed back towards the city center to rest at the Sarajevo brewery, whose underground lake had provided water to the city during the siege by Serbian forces.

The next day I went to the Sarajevo Football Club’s offices and was directed by a friendly lady to a Nike shop in order to find my coveted soccer jersey. Everyone was friendly in Sarajevo, exceptionally so—I guess living through a civil war teaches you, in a strange way, to be a more civil person. The Nike shop itself was a testament to how far the city—and country—had come; Sarajevo was once a symbol of the extremes of human brutality, now it had successfully joined the world economy and—it seemed—could finally start to heal the wounds of the past.

Sitting at the Sarajevo train station that night, with jersey acquired, I waited for the nine o’clock train to Banja Luka, capital of the Republika Srpska. Apparently, I would have to get off at a town named Doboj and transfer. At least I understood as such—the ticket office knew no English, just German (a relic from the days of the Eastern Bloc). Sitting on a bench in the station I drank some beers, purchased with the last of my Bosnian Convertible Marks. All around the cavernous station backpackers lay on the cold floor of the station, some young couples, others groups. Everyone seemed tired, and eager to get on with their journeys. As I sat, a homeless man sat down at the bench next to me. His clothes were worn and dirty, and he was wearing a winter coat not fit for the summer. I assumed it was all he owned.

“Know Tito?” he asked.

“Of course, Marshal Tito,” I responded. How could I not know the man who kept this fragile place together?

“Tito,” he said, and continued speaking in Serbo-Croat, gesticulation at times explaining the glories of Tito. He knew no more English, just enough to explain the history of his hero. I wondered how many others would agree with his views. He pointed, as if to ask where I had come from.


“America good,” he responded.

“Bosnia is also good,” I told him. He didn’t seem to agree, but was happy I liked his country. I pointed at him.

“Sarajevo,” he said, indicating where he was from. When I left for the train he sat and waved, resigned to sitting on that cold hard bench in his city. For him the border was demarcated at the train station—it was as far as he could go, yet I knew he had miles to go before he’d sleep.

The bullet marks on surrounding apartment blocks remind the visitor of a recent past not easily forgotten:


The downtown building home to the offices of FK Sarajevo:


Sports play a secondary role to the monuments of those who lost their lives too early:


The small football pitches around the main stadium were now mass graves, a silent yet startling reminder of the brutality of human beings. For as far as the eye could see alabaster white graves stood shining in the summer sun, each telling a separate story:


My paranoia of unexploded land mines:


One of the best pieces of stadium graffiti I’ve ever seen:


The beauty of Sarajevo in the backdrop:


The stands as green as the hills surrounding the city:


Turkish football makes its mark at the restaurants in the city center. After all, the first match at the Asim Ferhatovic took place in 1954 between Yugoslavia and Turkey:


Bijeli Brijeg Stadium/Stadion HSK Zrinjski, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina – FK Velez Mostar/HSK Zrinjski Mostar

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When a country dissolves, as Yugoslavia did during the 1990s, almost nothing stays the same. Sports are no exception. I visited Bosnia-Herzegovina in the summer of 2008 and traveled to Mostar on a day trip from Sarajevo in order to see the famous Stari Most–Old Bridge. Football was a side attraction for me that day in Mostar, and thats why I could only fit in a visit HSK Zrinjski Mostar’s Bijeli Brijeg Stadium. Hopefully I’ll be back someday–perhaps for a derby–in order to also visit Velez Mostar’s Vrapcici Stadium.

I won’t go into too much history here, since it is bound to be disputed by those better versed on Bosnian history than I, but a little background is useful for understanding the significance of this particular stadium. The Bijeli Brijeg Stadium–“The White Hill” Stadium–is located on the Western bank of the Neretva River that divides the city of Mostar. The Western bank is mostly ethnically Croatian, while the Eastern bank is inhabited mainly by ethnic Bosniak Muslims. This geographic separation was solidified between 1992 and 1993 when city was under an 18 month siege; the Western side was controlled by the Croatians and many Muslims were expelled across the river to the Eastern side.  It was during this siege that the Stari Most was destroyed, and that the Bijeli Brijeg became property of HSK Zrinjski Mostar–and renamed the Stadion Hrvatskog športskog kluba Zrinjski (Stadium Croatian Sport Club Zrinjski Mostar).

The 9,000 capacity stadium once belonged to Zrinjski’s rivals Velez Mostar, one of the most successful clubs from the former Yugoslavia as well as one that garnered support from all ethnic groups in the country. This cosmopolitanism made them a target for ultra-nationalist Croatians engaged in ethnic cleansing and ultimately led to their expulsion from the stadium and into the Vrapcici on the Eastern side of the city. To this day, they have not reclaimed the Bijeli Brijeg and it belongs solely to Zrinjski, as the busses parked outside the stadium clearly proclaim–Note the Croatian red and white checkers on the club’s logo below. Despite the tense political situation surrounding this stadium it’s setting is peaceful, in a valley below the rolling green hills that make Bosnia one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited.

For more information the following Wikipedia Links are helpful:





Also, in the literary realm, the Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina is a nice look at a town divided by a river and its ethnic identities. Although about the city of Visegrad in the pre-Yugoslavia years, much of it is still relevant to the situation in  Mostar.


The Stari Most and Eastern bank, to the right:


The Stari Most and Western bank, to the right:


On the way to the stadium one can see the writing on the wall:


The Zrinjski Badge:


Just different shades of green as the pitch fades into the rolling hills above it: