When Wales last qualified for a major finals in 1958, it involved a trip to Tel-Aviv and the Ramat Gan Stadium. On Saturday, the setting for Wales to make history is a run-down steel town in the heart of Bosnia: Zenica.
Set some 70km north-west of Sarajevo, Zenica is a former industrial hub that has played a special role in the slow rebuilding of formerly war-torn Bosnia. Its steel mills and coalmines no longer functioning, Zenica has contributed to the global profile of this emerging nation by taking over from the capital, Sarajevo, as the talismanic host of the national football team, nicknamed the Dragons.
The Zmajevi sealed their most famous victories here at the Bilino polje, the wins over Greece and Liechtenstein that paved passage to Brazil and an improbable encounter with Messi’s Argentina at the Maracanã last summer.
‘Bilino polje was built in the ’70s,’ says locally born photographer and Dragons’ fan Haris Badžić. ‘It is what we call English-style, shaped in a square rather than an oval, which puts fans right up close to the field. That’s what gives it its special feeling and atmosphere. And that’s why we call it the ‘Zmajevo gnijezdo’ – the Dragon’s Lair.’
Although Bosnia played their first official home international in Zenica, against Albania in 1996, once they were accepted in the FIFA fold they chose the Koševo Stadium to stage World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Greece, Slovenia and Denmark. Later named after the revered Bosnian striker Asim Ferhatović Hase, this national arena and home of his former club, FK Sarajevo, staged the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in 1984.
Home of NK Čelik (‘Steel’), Zenica only later began to share then later monopolise hosting rights for the national team. The record may show a total of seven defeats during this time but, much like Seville’s mercurial effect on the Spanish team in the 1980s, Zenica was thought to have its own special power. Here Norway, Belgium and Romania were all put to the sword, Spain, Portugal and Turkey escaping with a draw.
There’s also another factor. While Bosnian football remains as bitterly divided as this shattered post-war nation, like the Red Devils for Belgians, Zenica encourages a sense of unity. ‘There is no rivalry when the Dragons play in Zenica,’ says Haris. ‘We are all as one when it comes to national team games. That also provides a special feeling.’
Not that NK Čelik can be described as compliant hosts. Winners of the first Bosnian championship in 1995, a cantonised, play-off affair staged while the conflict was still raging, Čelik may not have won any silverware since the mid 1990s but that hasn’t discouraged their hardcore supporters. As Haris explains, ‘The Robijaši are considered to be among the best in Bosnia. They follow Čelik everywhere’.
Just as the Robijaši occupy the south side (Južna Tribina) of the 15,600-capacity Bilino polje, so visiting supporters are usually allocated a section of the north, the sjeverna. For big internationals, bars and cafés around the stadium such as the green-awninged Avanti, close. There are several football-friendly bars in town, such as the Stari Sat, but Wales fans are being advised to stick to taking supporters’ buses from and back to Sarajevo on the match day.
For those staying in Zenica, the Hotel Internacional is literally steps away from the stadium.
Bosnia-Wales, Bilino Polje, Zenica, Sat Oct 10, 2045 CET.