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Croatian-Herzegovinian club makes history as first to qualify for UEFA Group Stages

By Cole Kinder

If anyone follows the story of Bosnia and Herzegovina football, one will be quick to know Edin Džeko and the historic 2014 team that qualified for the World Cup in Brazil.

Yet, while the national team has had periods of success, Bosnian and Herzegovinian clubs have struggled to put themselves on the map, previously being one of eight UEFA nations to have not appeared in the group stages of any UEFA competition.

Now, we must be fair and report that clubs from this nation have done well in UEFA competitions during the Yugoslavian times, but since independence, not so much.

Therefore, when Zrinjski Mostar took the pitch on Thursday against Breiðablik in Iceland’s second largest city, Kópavogur, Zrinjski knew that they had a likely chance at Bosnia and Herzegovina history.

The first leg last Thursday (August 10th) saw Zrinjski do the damage winning 6-2 at their Stadion pod Bijelim Brijegom in Mostar.

But, it was the second leg that proved critical to Zrinjski’s advancement. 

The Kópavogsvöllur was well attended and the Icelandic clouds stormed in the air.

But, Zrinjski proved ready for any Viking onslaught Breiðablik had prepared, holding their opposition to a 0-0 first half score.

However, just when Zrinjski began looking toward the Europa League, an own goal struck, sending the home fans into a frenzy. It was 0-1 after the 56th minute. 

Could Zrinjski hold on and make history?

The answer came 40 minutes later as Anastasios Papapetrou of Greece blew the three final whistles signaling both the match and the tie completed, with Zrinjski having advanced to the group stage of a UEFA competition!

It may seem a bit anticlimactic for a piece of history to come after a loss, but that is the nature of aggregates, with Zrinjski advancing 6-4.

Some of you may be wondering, how is Zrinjski Croatian if they are in Mostar, and what exactly did Zrinjski qualify for?

The full name of Zrinjski is Hrvatski športski klub Zrinjski Mostar (Croatian sports club Zrinski Mostar). 

Back in the early 1900s, Herzegovinians wanted to form a cultural sports club called Hrvatski sokol (Croatian Falcon) in Mostar, but this was not allowed during the Habsburg times. The Croatians of Mostar needed a way to identify their club as Croatian without using Croatia in the name.

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So, they decided to use their connections with a professor and cultural club to create Đački športski klub (Student sports club) in 1905, which by 1912 they had found the loophole to make it a Croatian name: Gimnazijski nogometni klub Zrinjski (Gymnasium Football Club Zrinski). The meaning of the name Zrinjski was after the historic Croatian noble family that had many bans: the Zrinskis.

Bans were the viceroys, almost like a mix between a prime minister and governor-general for Croatia during the Kingdom of Croatia’s times in personal union with the Kingdom of Hungary and later more realms via the Habsburgs. Australian, New Zealander, and Canadian Croatians will surely understand this best.

Therefore, a piece of history brought about the Croatian identity the Herzegovinians in Mostar sought, without violating any laws.

But, World War 1 came quickly and the club had to shut down in 1914.

When it was refounded in 1917, it merged with Hrvatski radnički omladinski športski klub (HROŠK) from Mostar to become Hercegovac. 

In 1922, the newly merged club rebranded back to Zrinjski.

The club had always used this Croatian identity and were always decorated with Croatian colors, to represent the Croatian population of Mostar and the wider Herzegovina.

Stjepan Radić

Stjepan Radić in Mostar 1925 (Photo credit: Public doman)

Yet, this is what angered the Habsburg administration, and later the Karađorđević administration of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Thus, in 1936, Zrinjski once again received a ban from playing, but would resume again soon after.

However, the greatest ban was done by the Socialist Yugoslavian authorities.

Zrinjski had played in the Independent State of Croatia league, and the socialist authorities viewed Zrinjski as a part of fascist propaganda, so Zrinjski was banned from 1945-1992.

The club was re-established in Međugorje during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina and together with other Croatian-Bosnian and Croatian-Herzegovinian clubs, would compete in the Herceg-Bosnia Football Federation.

In 1998, Bosniak and Croatian clubs began to play against one another and joined the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2000, with Serbian clubs joining in 2002.

That is why many of the clubs in Bosnia and Herzegovina have ethnic identifiers in their club names.

Today, Zrinjski is beloved in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and among both diasporas.

Croatian-Herzegovinian club makes history as first to qualify for UEFA Group Stages

Stadion HŠK Zrinjski (Photo credit: Mostarac/CC BY-SA 3.0)

While Zrinjski have Bosniak and Serb supporters and even past players, among other ethnicities and nationalities, it remains primarily a Croatian-supported team dominated by players with Croatian ethnicity, many from Croatia itself.

Zrinjski even featured 2018 Ballon d’Or winner, Luka Modrić, on loan from Dinamo Zagreb in 2004.

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Currently, Zrinjski are having their best run of play yet. 

Zrinjski was able to win the 2022-2023 Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina for a record eighth time, and won the 2022-2023 Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Cup for a second time, Zrinjski’s first double!

Now, Zrinjski will be guaranteed a UEFA Group stage no matter their results in the next round of Europa League qualifiers.

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For those wondering what this means, Zrinjski was first in qualifiers to qualify for Europe’s best competition, the UEFA Champions League. After being eliminated, Zrinjski has now been put in the qualifiers for the UEFA Europa League, Europe’s second best competition.

Their next two UEFA matches are against LASK from Linz, Austria, first away at the Raiffeisen Arena on 24 August, and then at home on 31 August. If Zrinjski Mostar wins the aggregate, Zrinjski will feature in the Europa League Group Stage for the 2023-2024 season. If Zrinjski lose, Zrinjski will be guaranteed a spot in Europe’s third competition, the UEFA Conference League, for its 2023-2024 group stage.

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