Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years post-Dayton (4/12) : Soccer puts the accords to the test

Has FIFA succeeded where Dayton failed ? Despite its rocky path to unification, the Bosnian Football Association has been under one president since 2011 and its clubs take part in all international competitions. Could soccer inspire a reform of the Dayton framework ? Political scientist Loïc Trégourès explains.

This series is presented in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation

A quarter-century since the end of the war, the Courrier des Balkans has started series to examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s economy and politics, the social and environmental movements making their way through society, and the potential path to a brighter future. These articles will be accompanied by a two-day seminar on 2–3 December.

Dans les rues de Zenica le 7 juin 2012, lors du match Bosnie-Herzégovine - Albanie
© Loïc Trégourès / CdB

By Loïc Trégourès | Translated by Clarissa Howe

A graduate of Sciences-Po Lille, Loïc Trégourès has a doctorate in political science from Université Lille 2. He teaches international relations and political science at the Catholic University of Paris. A Courrier des Balkans contributor since 2008, he regularly covers Southeastern Europe for a variety of publications, such as the Jean Jaurès Foundation’s Observatoire des Balkans and The Conversation, and has appeared on many media outlets. He is the author of Le football dans le chaos yougoslave (Non Lieu 2019).

From 1996 to 2002, the change from war-era soccer to postwar-era soccer helped shape mental and political perceptions of the Dayton Accords. The long, tough road to creating a unified national association is a testament of the fragmentation of Bosnia and Herzegovina once the fighting ended and the complex power struggles between the country’s different peoples as well as various international stakeholders. The FIFA archives reveal the extensive correspondence in 1996 between the Mostar-based “Football Federation of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia” and the Sarajevo-based Football Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (NFSBiH), which partnered with FIFA in 19921 and gained recognition as a permanent member on July 4, 1996.

In some very lengthy letters, the Croats complained that they were not being considered legitimate representatives of the Croatian people and soccer in Herzeg-Bosnia. International bodies did indeed think that officially receiving their delegation would be seen as a political move with major repercussions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the Croats saw it, the Sarajevo-based Football Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina really only represented Bosniaks, meaning it had no legitimacy to take over the other two associations : Herzeg-Bosnia and Republika Srpska. Creating a unified soccer association would therefore necessitate bringing all three organizations together on a level playing field.

The deft diplomacy of FIFA

Symbolically, soccer is essential for recognizing identity. The Football Federation of Herzeg-Bosnia continued to exist and send out official documents even after the “Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia” was dissolved on August 14, 1996. The animosity between the Croats and the majority-Bosniak representatives of the Football Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (NFSBiH) can be seen in a letter sent by Sarajevo to the FIFA headquarters : “Please find enclosed a copy of the letter we sent to the so-called Football Federation of Herzeg-Bosnia”. The message elicited a jaded, handwritten comment from one FIFA official that reads “All’s not well…”.

From the 1997–98 season to the creation of a unified championship in 2000, the Croat-Bosniak Federation thus had two separate championships with a playoff at the end to determine an overall winner. It was on this sole condition that UEFA allowed clubs in Bosnia and Herzegovina to enter European competitions. However, disagreement remained, as evidenced by the fact that there was no playoff for the 1998–99 season because the stakeholders could not agree on whether to hold matches in Mostar. The club that the NFSBiH declared as champion, FK Sarajevo, was therefore kept out of that year’s European Cup.

While the Croats drove their bargain, the Serbs were set against creating a unified association. In 1996, Republika Srpska (RS) blithely sent three short paragraphs to FIFA. In tenuous English, secretary-general Rodoljub Petković acknowledged FIFA’s demand that RS join the NFSBiH system, but stated that the minimum conditions for such a merger had not been met and demanded that FIFA accept RS as a member in its own right. Serbian leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina considered the Dayton Constitution to be illegitimate, and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its football association along with it.

While the NFSBiH did become an official FIFA member in July 1996, the officials overseeing their application at the time recognized that, in strict legal terms, it did not meet all the requirements. Being based in Sarajevo, the NFSBiH thought it should be recognized as the successor to the Bosnian association, which had been part of the Yugoslavian association from 1945 to 1992. The political and institutional complexity of Bosnia and Herzegovina forced FIFA to allow the NFSBiH to join even though plans to unify soccer in the country had hardly been drawn up and it had been impossible to review all soccer-related activity throughout its territory. Once again, FIFA and UEFA were the ones pressuring the NFSBiH to make multiple changes to its bylaws so as to include all the constituent parts of national-level football.

Joseph Blatter, secretary-general of FIFA at the time, thought politics and “common sense” should prevail over strict legalities. “If their [application] file is complete…the FIFA Congress should let BH join. Otherwise, the problem will never be resolved,” he wrote at the time. The last sentence is the essence of post-Dayton Bosnia : a country where decisions are taken by force and under pressure if not at the behest of the international community, and often by bending the official rules.

A copy of Dayton ?

To overcome the initial obstacles, FIFA and UEFA officials also decided, after conferring with the Office of the High Representative (OHR), to copy the Bosnian soccer association’s structure from the Dayton Accords, which turned out to be less than successful because the Serbs kept refusing to compromise. The situation changed with the political turning point of the year 2000, as Vincent Monnier, who was in charge FIFA’s national associations, recalls. “Tuđman had just died and the first truly democratic elections were being held in Croatia. Milošević had been forced out and even in Bosnia and Herzegovina things were looking up. The decline in nationalist rhetoric helped to unify the association. Sport is subordinate to political decision making, but it can later reinforce that decision making. To think it went the other way would be ridiculous. FIFA and the IOC have never preceded political change.”

At the time, an idea was taking hold in Republika Srpska (RS) that the Dayton framework could not be amended and that they should therefore make the best of it, including in the soccer association. “We demanded that the soccer association copy Dayton : two associations, the Federation’s and RS’s, would ask to join the association of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” explains Marcel Benz, who oversaw the matter at UEFA. “It took until 2002 to actually do it, which was when the Serbs realized they would never get independent recognition and saw that the system the Bosniaks and Croats had was working pretty well, especially after they started holding a unified championship in 2000. The Serbs also decided to play along when they were promised one third of spots in all the association’s constituent bodies and a tripartite presidency that rotated every sixteen months.”

The parties came close to reunifying back in 2000, but the Serbs pulled out at the last minute, likely due to fears that their clubs were not up to scratch and would all be relegated at the end of the first season. This led to the idea for an unusual setup : a unified top division with a separate second division for each entity. At the end of each season, two teams would be relegated and replaced by the winners of the second division in each of the two entities. It took until 2002, however, for political officials in RS to agree to and complete the process of integrating the NFSBiH. Since then, the Serbs have gradually come to accept the Dayton Agreement, learning to take such advantage of it that today they are its most ardent defenders.

2011 : A single president to lead the NFSBiH

Then, in 2011, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s soccer association was temporarily suspended from FIFA until it instituted a single president to comply with the international organization’s rules. While the Dayton Constitution – which was only supposed to be provisional – has yet to be reformed, the NSFBiH eventually did update its bylaws under pressure from FIFA. There are a number of reasons for this success : FIFA is the world soccer authority and, although any country may refuse to follow its rules, doing so means that country’s clubs cannot play outside its borders. The means of pressure is therefore simple and direct. Furthermore, negotiations with the Serbs were led by former soccer legend Ivica Osim, whose presence loomed large in the talks. Finally, in 2011, the cup went to Borac Banja Luka ; a FIFA suspension would have kept the capital of the Serbian entity’s team out of European competition.

Today, the same ailments plague soccer in Bosnia and Herzegovina as in neighboring countries : scant resources and rampant corruption. On the pitch, the national teams are more mixed than ever before. It is hard to tell, though, which country the Bosnian people might root for. Furthermore, there is likely a wide gulf between public celebration and private fandom – the difference was certainly striking during the 2014 World Cup, when Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for the first time ever. However, anyone wanting to see more scenes of jubilation will have to wait : Croatia and North Macedonia are the only former Yugoslav republics taking part in Euro 2021.