Abdulah had been the previous three days’ life and soul but now he stood still, arms outstretched, at the edge of a precarious concrete overhang. He was sprightly to a degree beyond his 70 years but, in any case, instinct had overtaken him. As the full-time whistle blew, and as Bosnia-Herzegovina began to absorb the scale of their achievement, he had vaulted a barrier at the front of this creaking Soviet-era stand’s top tier and wiped away tears before surveying the scene below. “Hajmo Bosno!” (“Go, Bosnia!”), he shouted through the misty air of an evening that would have seemed unremittingly bleak if something this momentous had not just occurred. “We did it!”
I had travelled with Abdulah on one of a vast convoy of coaches from Sarajevo to the Lithuanian city Kaunas. The idea was to take the same 1,125-mile journey as many of the thousands who had dropped everything in anticipation of what lay at its end. If Bosnia won in Lithuania they would qualify for their first World Cup and, for a young country still recovering from the war of the early 1990s, the meaning of that achievement almost transcended explanation.
But because football is about people and lives, and the stories that bind and explain both, there was no lack of willingness to seek the words. Abdulah had left Bosnia in 1968 to become an iron worker in Adelaide. When Brazil 2014 began to seem a realistic proposition, he saved up and took three flights to Sarajevo for a six-week visit that would overlap with Bosnia’s final four games. Being on this journey to Kaunas had lifted his soul, he said. He felt united with long-distant countrymen in a way that had never seemed possible.
As the bus hugged the Bosna river before winding through Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the forests of southern Lithuania, fuelled by rakia and laughter, the individual tales kept coming. Elvir had sold a home to fund his odyssey through the team’s qualifiers, and hopefully to Brazil; Adnan was a qualified lawyer but had worked all hours in a hardware store to fund his ticket; Sabina was a disillusioned student with dreams of someday, somehow emigrating to Japan and would find a way of repaying her football-mad cousin for this week of escapism; Michael was a German soldier, posted to Sarajevo as part of Nato and the UN’s post-war presence who could not bring himself to leave.
It was a rag-tag crew, with shared sadnesses and deeply personal ones, too; all joined in the expectation of a happiness whose vessel, a brilliant football team, they could never have foreseen. We arrived in Kaunas and so, it seemed, did the entire Bosnian diaspora. Laisves Aleja, the main street, played host to reunions of impossible poignancy. Cousins separated by war and then by oceans melted into each other’s arms. Childhood friends from Sarajevo or Mostar picked each other out in a crowd and retold stories that had gathered dust. And now they would go to the football together.
It was a horrible game until the 68th minute. Safet Susic had composed a mesmerising attacking side propelled by Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic but little was coming off against a turgid Lithuania and the unthinkable looked increasingly real. Then Vedad Ibisevic found space in the box and jabbed into the net from six yards; the Bosnians who had filled this unappealing little stadium could now turn it into the venue for a party they would remember forever – and one I will too.
I woke the next morning with, for reasons that had faded into an endless night, Abdulah’s “Bosnia Adelaide” flag by my side. He had long departed on the return leg to Sarajevo; I was to fly back to London from Kaunas. Soon after arriving home I posted it to his home address and, a couple of months later, received a note in reply: “Look forward to seeing you again in Sao Paolo, Brazil.” I did not make it there, but I have no doubt Abdulah did; for him, and all the others, there would be no barrier high enough to stop them following the country they adored.