Sinsheim - Sunday 15 June 2014 is one date destined to remain burnished in the memory of Sejad Salihovic. Fitness and likely selection permitting, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim's set-piece specialist will step out at the legendary Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to face Argentina as Bosnia and Herzegovina take their historic bow at a FIFA World Cup finals.
The pressure, according to the 29-year-old midfielder, will all be on Lionel Messi et al, favourites to win this game and Group F as well, where Nigeria and Iran are also battling for a place in the last 16. The occasion itself, he acknowledges, will be the fulfilment of a long-held dream. It's a common sentiment among footballers in connection with a tournament that will be followed first-hand by millions and, worldwide, by billions. For Salihovic, however, the dream has an altogether greater resonance.
Like many of his current national team-mates, Sejad's life was changed forever by the Bosnian War of 1992-95, one of the conflicts arising from the break-up of Yugoslavia. His family fled the violence and landed up in Berlin, where his talent on the ball earned his place in the youth ranks of local powerhouse Hertha. In 2006, Ralf Rangnick signed him up for an ambitious Hoffenheim side who at that juncture were still playing third-flight football. Two seasons of back-to-back promotion later, they were in the Bundesliga for the first time and Salihovic, having helped them get there, has remained true to the club through thick and thin ever since.
The relationship with his homeland remains “very special,” he says, and celebrating the nation's first-time qualification for the finals with thousands of his compatriots in the capital, Sarajevo, was an unforgettable experience – one which was achieved with the help of several other players earning their corn in the Bundesliga. VfB Stuttgart's Vedad Ibisevic, Sead Kolasinac of FC Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen's Emir Spahic, Mensur Mujdza of SC Freiburg and new Hoffenheim club-mate Ermin Bicakcic are all set to join Salihovic on the flight to Brazil, not to mention Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimovic, two of the key players in VfL Wolfsburg's 2009 Bundesliga title-winning side.
Having twice previously been eliminated by Portugal in the play-offs, the young Balkan nation this time took the direct route, winning their qualifying group on goal difference ahead of Greece. “The fact that we've finally managed it is a demonstration of the team's spirit,” says the TSG linchpin, “we've a lot of self-belief and we play good, attacking football.” Head coach Safet Susic is the man in charge of Operation Brazil 2014. Capped 54 times for Yugoslavia, the former midfield ace is, in Salihovic's words, “a legend, someone everybody respects.”
His own place in Susic's system is at left-back, where Hoffenheim coach Markus Gisdol also deployed him on occasion as a stopgap measure this season. For the national team, the position has become more long-term and Salihovic has to grin when explaining that his first priority is to defend. At any rate, “I've got used to playing there.” All-in-all, his road to the World Cup finals has been a long and far from straightforward one and he means to make the most of it. His flood-ravaged homeland could certainly do with some diversionary good news on the sporting front at the moment.
Salihovic's family will be over in Brazil in numbers to follow his and the team's progress on the ground. Qualifying from the group, he says, is “doable.” And after that, anything is possible...