The USSR had also been a formidable force in football as they reached the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup besides winning Euro in 1960.
Nizhny Novgorod: Some incurable romantics never get tired of pointing out that Olympic hockey gold would never have left the sub-continent had India not been cleaved into two countries in 1947. Football also has what might have been stories and they come into focus ahead of Croatia’s quarter-final against Russia in Sochi on Saturday. Both Croatia and Russia played under Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union respectively up to Italia 90.
Had Yugoslavia, formed in 1918 after World War I, not broken into multiple countries in the early 90s, they would be challenging the likes of Brazil and France for the World Cup. Just imagine Nemanja Matic of Serbia as a defensive midfielder behind the splendid Croatian duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Throw in Bosnian forward Eden Dzeko and Serbian left-back Alexander Kolarov for good measure and you have a cracker of a team. Had Yugoslavia remained peaceful, Xherdan Shaqiri’s family wouldn’t have left Kosovo for Switzerland and the mercurial forward would also be available for selection.
There is plenty of talent in the Balkan countries but they are divided as Macedonians, Slovenians, Kosovar Albanians, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. It is almost impossible to reunite the bitterly divided ethnic groups under one flag again but it is also true that they all had played for one nation for 70 years until a generation ago.
In six World Cups since their independence, Croatia have missed only one edition. Inspired by Davor Suker’s six goals, they finished third at the 1998 World Cup and it was a seminal moment in Croatia’s history. When they were seeking an identity as a nation and international recognition, the World Cup came at the right time. Nationalism and football are inseparable at the Balkans. That’s why Shaqiri has a Kosovo flag stitched to his boot.
The USSR had also been a formidable force in football as they reached the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup besides winning Euro in 1960. Had the Soviet Union not imploded, they would be one of the title contenders here as players from Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine would be available for selection in addition to Russians. Like Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union is also an impossible dream as a result of acrimony between different groups.