Jonathan Wilson explains the uplifting story of Serbia playmaker Miralem Pjanic, and how, along with star striker Ediz Dzeko, he can help his nation qualify from World Cup Group F…
Bosnia’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in October 2012 was drifting. With almost half an hour played it was goalless, and such threat as either side had posed had come from Lithuanian set-plays. The crowd in Zenica, buoyed by two wins and then a goalless draw away to Greece, was becoming a little anxious.
Then Miralem Pjanic, afforded far too much space on the right of Bosnia’s 4-4-2, ran from deep and slid in a perfect through-ball for Vedad Ibisevic. He took one touch and then lashed the ball into the top corner.
Three minutes later, Pjanic threaded a pass through a copse of players to Ibisevic who, as though surprised the ball had reached him, miscontrolled. It didn’t matter: Pjanic was away and for 15 minutes this was his game, in which he could do what he pleased. He set up Edin Dzeko for an easy finish and then, before half-time, converted nonchalantly after Dzeko had taken the ball down in his chest and cleverly created space for a cross.
Dzeko, understandably, takes most of the headlines aboutBosnia. He is the captain and centre-forward and, having lived through the siege of Sarajevo, is somehow symbolic of the country’s struggles. But in terms of creating the play, the key man is Pjanic, who is having a fine season for Roma and who, as part of the diaspora, is representative of another strand of Bosnia’s war-time experience.
Pjanic was born in Bosnia, where his father, Fahrudin, was a footballer, playing in the Yugoslav third division for Drina Zvornik. As the war approached, he received an offer to go to Luxembourg and play semi-professionally, working by day and training in the evenings. “Today, people say that no one dreamed there would be the war in Bosnia,” he said. “But for me it was quite clear what would happen in Yugoslavia. Playing third-division games in small towns you saw everything and felt everything: hatred, violence, threats. I knew there would be riots and so I decided to leave.”
Drina, though, held Fahrudin’s registration, and were reluctant to let him go. Desperate, Pjanic’s mother, Fatima, went to the club to beg them to hand over her husband’s papers, taking the baby Miralem with her. “A child is a child,” she said, “and when he felt that I was upset he started to cry. Only then did the secretary of the club give us the documents. I doubt that we would ever got out of there if Miralem had been silent at that moment.”
In Luxembourg, Fahrudin began to take his son to watch him play. “The ball entered his blood,” he said. “It went along with me and the rain and the sun. It was natural for him. When he was six or seven years old I realised what a talent he had, but I never believed that he could play for a club like Lyon.”
Shortly after the war, the family returned to Bosnia to visit friends and relatives. The journey took 12 hours and, according to Fahrudin, Mirlem played with a ball the whole way there. “We arrived late at night, and at six in the morning my father woke me,” said Fahrudin. “He said he could hear something banging in the garage, and that it was maybe a burglar. So we went down and we saw how Miralem played with a ball. I knew then he would be a player.”
He played for the Luxembourg youth teams but, after becoming established at Metz and securing a transfer to Lyon, Pjanic committed to Bosnia. There is something almost old-fashioned about how he plays, almost as a playmaker from the right, and yet he is very modern in his attitude to defending. Stats from whoscored.com show he makes 2.5 tackles per game – which is the same figure as Phil Bardsley or Steven Gerrard this season.
If Bosnia are to progress from a group at the World Cupthat includes Argentina, Nigeria and Iran, they need Pjanic in form. If he is, and if Dzeko is fit, then the 1.76 on themTo Qualify may be just about worth it. If not, Nigeria at 2.26 becomes very attractive.