It did not look like there was much hope for Muhamed Besic to make the Bosnia-Herzegovina squad for the World Cup by the time their successful qualification campaign reached its conclusion in October. A hugely-promising start to his career had quickly gone up in smoke. He had been cast out of Hamburg, ending up at off-the-radar Ferencvaros, and despite calls in Bosnia for his inclusion he hadn't set foot on the pitch for his nation in a year.
But Safet Susic kept Besic in mind. The Bosnia coach had a plan. He included the Berlin-born defender-cum-midfielder for the friendly matches against Cote d'Ivoire and Mexico ahead of the tournament and the player was revelatory. Susic would go on to claim that Besic was the only Bosnian capable of being deployed against Lionel Messi. He was deadly serious.
Bosnia may well have scored 30 goals in the qualification phase and boasted all three top scorers in their group but the man who emerges as their best player of these finals may not be a goalscorer or creator. He is the one who has given Bosnia the one thing they lacked before the tournament - balance in the midfield. Although he played most of his club football at centre-back, Susic saw in Besic the qualities to augment his side futher forward.
From relative obscurity Besic was suddenly marking Messi at the Maracana in a World Cup. It may have been a sudden rise but the 21-year-old was certainly not overawed by the task at hand. There was a maturity in his game against Argentina that belied his years and contradicted the impression some had of him as a hot-head. His performance, albeit on the losing side, was warmly received in his homeland as fans and pundits gushed over the perceived solution to a long-standing Bosnian problem.
"We played differently in the qualifiers when we had to win every match and Greece were breathing down our necks," Susic told Goal. "We risked our lives. We allowed ourselves to play without a holding midfielder.
"Here at the World Cup our opponents are a bit better. We had to find someone. We are rare in that we play one holding midfielder and the rest are creative. Muhamed Besic brought this natural balance to our team."
|MUHAMED BESIC | Bosnia-Herzegovina
When Bosnia-Herzegovina's best generation came through there was one crucial problem. They were mostly all attackers. Susic has had to wrestle with the conundrum of how best to fit in Edin Dzeko, Vedad Ibisevic, Zvjezdan Misimovic, Izet Hajrovic and Miralem Pjanic to the line-up without leaving glaring holes defensively. The Bosnians were not blessed with the same pedigree in the backline with only Emir Spahic playing regularly in the top European leagues.
Many of their goals in the qualification campaign came against the smaller teams. There lingered the perception that their two-striker formation would be a little unrefined against the bigger sides at the World Cup. Susic initiated a tactical plan for a 4-2-3-1 in the build-up to the tournament.
Flaws were ironed out. Sead Kolasinac was sourced as a left-back, meaning temporary solutions in that position, either Senad Lulic or Sejad Salihovic, no longer had to be fielded. Most encouraging for Bosnia though is the stable midfield base that has been given to them by Besic.
His inclusion has permitted Pjanic and Misimovic to take the game to opponents. Bosnia are narrow favourites for their second Group F match against Nigeria in Cuiaba on Saturday and if they are to live up to expectations, and go through to the knockout stages, Besic will be key.
"Muhamed means a lot to us," Pjanic said. "I play well with him in the midfield. He has made a very good impression on me. He is a high-quality player. We are all satisfied with his efforts, the will he demonstrates, how he plays."
His rise was sudden. He was named as Bosnia's youngest-ever international at 18 when Susic called him up for a friendly win against Slovakia in Bratislava in November 2010. That cap came hot on the heels of his first senior game for Hamburg and his debut in the under-21s. Things stalled somewhat from there. There was a sour end at Hamburg due to a falling out with then-coach Thorsten Fink, which preceded his demotion to the Bosnia under-21s. He even had his difficulties in that set-up and found himself out of the reckoning for the senior side while in a relative backwater at club level.
That he is still playing in Hungary's OTB Bank Liga is perhaps a surprise but a couple more strong showings here in Brazil and he will no doubt be moving back to one of Europe's more prominent leagues. He can now be said to have served his exile. He impressed over the course of last season for the side who finished third in the league but he did so mostly at centre-back. He exudes calm in possession, reads the game well and is relentlessly aggressive in the tackle.
In that sense, Besic's emergence could not have been timed better. "We like a type of player who is capable of pressing the ball and tackling," Susic said. "This is the type we found in Besic."