Saturday, 15 October 2011

Bosnian Gobbets

The word gobbet is usually a terrifying one for undergraduate historians. They are a staple diet of modern history exams, where one is presented with a text that can be as short as six words, and on that basis write a 1, 500 word critical essay, in exam conditions. A brutally exact and contextualised knowledge is needed to be successful; the text can be something as feeble as " I saw Chamberlain today. PM very gloomy". No flannel or padding is possible with such scant material.

It's the historical equivalent of 20-20 cricket, where one has to go in and immediately start biffing the historical white ball all over the park, or get out quickly and hope that someone else can do better. So gobbets here is meant in the gentler sense, in just being short observations about this week, viz.

1. Why are French sporting teams so damned lucky? Sarajevo went very quiet on Wednesday night, as the BiH football team took to the field at the Stade de France, knowing that a win would see them qualify for a major football tournament for the first time. And, for an hour, the Bosnians dominated a shockingly poor home side, who did a good impression of having met for the first time in a Métro carriage half an hour before kick off. Dynamo Moscow's Misimović, surely the most under-rated attacking midfielder in Europe, passed the French off the park and was the electricity in the Bosnian dynamo.

Sadly, much of the ammunition he provided fell to Manchester City forward Edin Džeko. The big no. 9 was doing a very good impression of Tony Cascarino on Wednesday. He was absolutely terrible, missing two or three really easy chances, before, in typically mercurial fashion, making and scoring the brilliant goal which saw Bosnia lead at half time. Džeko has terrific upper body strength and is quick, but in terms of skill and temperament he's still a bit of an unguided missile in my view, and is very, very frustrating to watch.

Sadly, France equalised with about twelve minutes to go through a penalty, and the Bosnians had run out of steam by then, leaving them to rue their profiligacy in the first half. With typical abysmal luck, they have now been drawn with Portugal in the play-offs, the worst draw possible, as this is the team that eliminated BiH at the same stage before the 2010 World Cup. If only Bosnia could have a bit of self belief, they could gain revenge, but it seems unlikely. The spirit of the old Yugoslavia team hangs around this current BiH team; they are wonderful to watch, very gifted technically, and flatter to deceive, never quite prevailing in games where it matters. Sarajevo was twelve minutes away from an amazing party on Wednesday night; instead, the pubs had emptied half an hour after the full time whistle, as folk dissipated away in bitterly disappointed silence.

France are better organised under Laurent Blanc, after the utter shambles and scandal of the Domenech era, but they are still a deeply mediocre side who won't make it beyond the group stages of Euro 2012 next year; a side extremely fortunate not to be facing a play off. I can think of only two of the current French group of players, who would have got near their all-conquering squads of 1998-2000.

Let's not even start on the rugby world cup semi-final today. I heartily detest rugby union for reasons for too numerous to mention, and will loathe it to my dying day, but I really wanted Wales to win today- and it sounds like, yet again, France were extremely lucky to progress to the final. Almost certainly, however, a righteous vaporising awaits them at the hands of the Kiwis or the Australians. Nonetheless, no one has heard of rugby here in Bosnia, so it's been bliss to be spared the egg-chasing "world cup" (British Commonwealth plus one or two exotic others, more like) in its entirety.

2. It's been largely poor stuff from the ex-Yugoslav countries in qualification. Alongside BiH, Montenegro have been the team to really stand out, qualifying from a difficult group behind England. The doughty Montenegrins- lacking a genuine goalscorer, but very, very determined and hard to break down, particularly in Podgorica- face a winnable tie, against a poor Czech side, for a place in Poland and Ukraine next year. Croatia face the Turks in another difficult to call tie, the men in the red and white chessboard shirts have had a very quiet time, since the heyday of Slaven Bilić's team leaving Steve McLaren cowering under his umbrella, in a Wembley monsoon. Both sides seem to be in transition although I think the Croats are marginal favourites.

Serbia and Slovenia cancelled one another out in a very bizarre qualifying group, won easily by Italy but, surreally, seeing Estonia make the play offs. Having spent some time in Estonia in the last 3-4 years and seen them play on many occasions, I am absolutely astonished at their transformation. This was a team that went winless for over a year in 2007-8; the last time I watched an Estonia international, they were a sorry, dis-spirited shambles, routed 7-1 in Sarajevo by the Bosnians. However, their unsmiling head coach Tarmo Rüütli, who nearly lost his job after that humiliation, has transformed them into a hard working team much greater than the sum of its little-known parts. Back to back wins against an ageing Northern Ireland team for the Estonians, left Serbia needing to beat Slovenia in Maribor; Slovenia prevailed 1-0, being cheered on not only by their home fans but by a capacity crowd of cornflower-blue clad loons at the A le Coq. stadium in Tallinn, watching on a giant screen.  In the three days that followed, both Vladimir Petrović, the deeply unpopular Serb head coach, and Noerthern Ireland's Nigel Worthington, have paid with their jobs for Estonia's success.

It was such a strange group: Estonia won in Belgrade last October, and suffered a catastrophe in Torshavn at the hands of the Faroe Islands just three months before this high point of their footballing history. Their qualification is a wonderful story, but I suspect it will end before Euro 2012 begins; I really cannot, even with my most optimistic glasses on, see them beating the Republic of Ireland over two legs in the play off.

Finally, to no one's surprise, Macedonia's John Toshack has the biggest job on his hands. After his promising start against the Russians in Moscow, Toshack has subsequently overseen an excruciatingly dull 1-0 win over the mighty Andorra in Skopje, followed by a tumble down the slippery slope to a 1-4 disaster in Yerevan. Tuesday's home draw with Slovakia restored some deeply wounded pride, but worryingly for the Macedonian FA, the stadium was virtually empty for this meaningless final game. Toshack needs to unearth some new young players from somewhere, and improve their morale, if they are to make an impact in the 2014 world cup qualifying group.

As for Scotland? It would have bee typical if we had gone over to Spain and won, but the reality is that the damage was done by abysmal, negative, fear-filled showings away in Kaunas and Prague. Craig Levein has failed to convince a significant minority of Scottish fans that he has the necessary attributes to make Scotland competitive and challenging seriously for qualification again. The 2014 group- featuring the Croats, Serbs, Belgians, Gary Speed's resurgent Wales, and Macedonia, looks very difficult for us again.

3. I've finally got some research underway at the faculty of fine art here in Sarajevo. Nonetheless, in terms of art, there's been slim pickings. The National Gallery, supposedly re-opening on 11 October, remains absolutely closed, and the question as to when it will re-open usually just produces a shrug of the shoulders. The reality is, however, that since the 1992-95 conflict here, art has been a mobile and temporary phenomenon in terms of its display; initiatives like the small duplex 10m2, run by two French curators, are one of the few still points in a continuously changing small scene. 10m2 has been closed all week, but there is an opening of the contemporary Porschism collective there tonight, so I think I shall be sneaking along to that. Other then 10m2 and the extremely itinerant SCCA, which I have yet to find, there is not really much other than the Fine Art academy, constituted as such in 1972, and a few small commercial galleries of very varying quality. It will take time to uncover what seems to be a very fragmented and ephemeral contemporary arts scene.

4. I think I'll have another week of pretty intensive work in Sarajevo, then will spend the week after next travelling to a few places outwith the capital. I need to go to Konjic, a small town which was home of Tito's bunker, now a major exhibition of contemporary art; Mostar; and Jajce, home to a Museum of the Partisan struggle. So there should be quite a lot on here in the next couple of weeks.

5. Google Maps for Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia is pathetic. Seriously, the information is so scant, poor, and misleading, they might as well not bother.

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