What if the South had won the American Civil War? What if Archduke Ferdinand had never been shot in Sarajevo? What if Pearl Harbor was not bombed and the United States hadn’t entered World War Two? What if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War? Alternate histories are an interesting game to play in the study of international history. One could go on forever on these subjects, creating scenarios in one’s mind over scotch in the local pub. Here is one more, a scenario very pertinent to modern history: What if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart in the 1990s?

As a football fan it is hard not to bring this particular alternate history to mind (The Guardian mentioned it 7 years ago), especially during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Half a world away and twenty years removed from the violence in the Balkans, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina proudly represent independent nations on the green fields of Brazil. Both teams had monumental tasks in their first matches but can hold their heads high—Croatia fell victim to some questionable refereeing in their first match against hosts Brazil, while Bosnia put up a good fight before ultimately coming up short against an Argentina backed by Messi’s brilliance.

But the Balkan flavor of the 2014 World Cup does not end with the big names of Luka Modric and Edin Dzeko. They are merely where it begins. Take the unforgettable finish to yesterday’s meeting between Ecuador and Switzerland as an example.

 

 

Ecuador went up early through a headed goal by Enner Valencia and Switzerland were left looking lost through the first forty-five minutes, facing a 1-0 deficit at half-time. Switzerland needed a spark, and it came from the region many have termed the “powder-keg of Europe”—the Balkans. Just two minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute Admir Mehmedi capitalized on some poor Ecuadorian defending to level proceedings at 1-1. Mehmedi himself is an ethnic Albanian, born in Gostivar, Macedonia (in the northwest corner of the country, near the Kosovo border) in 1991, before moving to Switzerland at the age of two.

Then came the best finish to any of the matches so far. Ecuador looked to have a chance in the third minute of stoppage time when Valon Behrami dove in to block the shot, before gaining control of the ball. Behrami then orchestrated the counter attack, taking the ball across the half way line and setting up the play that eventually gave another second half substitute, Haris Seferovic, the chance to net the winner for Switzerland and settle the final score at 2-1.

Valon Behrami is an ethnic Albanian, born in what was then Titova Mitrovica (now just Mitrovica, a city has seen sporadic ethnic clashes between Serbs and Kosovars since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and subsequent sovereignty in 2012) in present-day Kosovo before moving to Switzerland at age five. Meanwhile, the goal scorer Seferovic was born in Switzerland in 1992 to Bosnian parents who emigrated in the 1980s. What is especially remarkable is that of Switzerland’s World Cup squad of 23 players, an astounding 8 have some Balkan connection:

 

Granit Xhaka: The Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder was born in Basel in 1992 to Albanian parents.

Valon Behrami: As discussed above, the Napoli midfielder was born in present-day Kosovo in 1985 before emigrating to Switzerland in 1990.

Blerim Dzemaili: The 28 year old Napoli midfielder was born in Tetovo, current day FYR Macedonia to an Albanian family before emigrating to Zurich at age 4.

Xherdan Shaquiri: Bayern Munich’s star winger was born in Gnjilane, Yugoslavia (now present-day Kosovo) in 1991 before emigrating to Switzerland a year later.

Haris Seferovic: As discussed above, the Real Sociedad striker was born to Bosnian Parents in Sursee, Switzerland in 1992.

Mario Gavranovic: The twenty four year old FC Zurich forward was born in Lugano to Bosnian Croat parents who emigrated from Gradacac (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1988.

Josip Drmic: The young Bayer Leverkusen striker was born in Lachen Switzerland in 1992 to a Croatian family.

Admir Mehmedi: As discussed above, the Freiburg striker was born in Gostivar, Macedonia in 1991 to an Albanian family before emigrating to Switzerland in 1993.

 

Sports Illustrated wrote an enjoyable article on the Bosnian team in the run up to the World Cup and I would argue that the story of Switzerland’s Balkan contingent is equally enthralling. Certainly it begs the question: what if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart and lost such athletic talent? Obviously sport has a nature vs. nurture element to it—would these footballers have been able to work their way up through the less developed youth systems in an intact Yugoslavia? How much of their progress was aided by having access to modern training facilities in Switzerland? Would they have chosen to represent a Yugoslavian team over the team of their adopted homeland (if their families had even emigrated in the first place)? And what about all the other variables that life throws at us, so far out of any individual’s control?

I argue that they would have had a fighting chance—after all, Yugoslavia was a respectable team before the dark days of the 1990s. They were semi-finalists in the World Cup twice and Quarterfinalists once, in 1990. And who can forget that strange twist of history—because of the wars Yugoslavia was disqualified from the 1992 European Championships after qualifying and was replaced by Denmark . . . the team that went on to win the tournament.

Twenty years on the reverberations of the conflict spread beyond just the teams qualified for this World Cup. The current captain of the Serbian national football team (which did not qualify) is Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic, one of the best defenders in the world today. Tiny Montenegro, a country of just over 650,000 and the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, boast two Premier League players on their squad and gave England a run for their money during qualification for the 2014 World Cup after narrowly missing out on a spot in the 2012 European Championships in a playoff to the Czech Republic. And I won’t even count Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic—the mercurial striker who is currently one of the world’s best—since his Bosniak father (and Croatian mother) emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s, long before the collapse. But, if an intact Yugoslavia had fielded a team in 2001 when Zlatan first made his debut for Sweden, might he have opted for the country of his parent’s birth? We will never know, but it’s worth a thought.

This year’s favorites may be Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, and Spain to name a few but—if only for a moment—imagine the possibilities in this World Cup if modern history had taken a different turn.

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