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Milena Nikolic, of Bosnia, shakes hand with an Italian opponent before a match
Milena Nikolic (right) is Bosnia's captain and main attacking threat, but will miss Thursday's matchImage: Francesco Militello Mirto/NurPhoto/picture alliance
SoccerBosnia and Herzegovina

World Cup playoffs: Bosnia break new ground

October 5, 2022

Milena Nikolic's goals have taken Bosnia-Herzegovina to the brink of World Cup 2023. The captain will miss her side's playoff with Wales through injury, but told DW that belief is high and the country is making strides.

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If you ever find yourself in Bayer Leverkusen's club shop and the assistant's mind seems to be elsewhere, you might have to forgive Milena Nikolic. She's probably thinking about her chance to captain her country in their first-ever World Cup.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina forward combines her playing role at the Bundesliga club with a few hours a day in the store, a situation familiar to the vast majority of female players outside of the handful of fully-professional leagues. "It's a fun job, especially when people recognize that you play for the women's team, that can be funny," she told DW ahead of her country's World Cup playoff with Wales on Thursday.

Nikolic will miss the game at the 33,280-capacity Cardiff City stadium with an injury that has kept her out of the Bundesliga this term. The 30-year-old, Leverkusen's all-time leading scorer, says missing out is incredibly "difficult and hard" but nevertheless describes just qualifying for the one-legged tie as the "hugest success in our history."

Bosnia up against it

There's no doubting the size of the task for Bosnia, particularly in the absence of Nikolic, whose crucial goals in wins against Azerbaijan and Montenegro got them to this stage. The team's FIFA world ranking of 63 is 30 places behind Wales and the lowest of the teams who will contest the European playoffs. As a result, they will need to win in Cardiff and then beat Switzerland (ranked 21) away before an intercontinental playoff in New Zealand in February. But Nikolic has faith in the young squad that will take the field in her absence.

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"I believe that my team will prepare well for this game and first of all enjoy it because it's one of the biggest games in our history of women's football," she said. "We have a really young team, I'm one of the oldest, but a lot of the players play in the Champions League but also a lot play abroad in Norway and Portugal. I've tried to support them for what maybe for some is the first time on a huge stage. But they believe in themselves."

Those young players have enjoyed a slightly more supported path to this point than Nikolic, who left Bosnia to play first in Serbia in 2013 before joining Bundesliga outfit SC Sand in 2016, and then Leverkusen three years later. But the national team skipper said women still face an uphill battle to become top players in her homeland.

Bundesliga sets a different standard

"It's still amateur and they don't invest too much money in women's soccer," Nikolic said. "There is a big difference from Bosnia and a big country like Germany. The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues around the world. But we play football for love, and to enjoy the game. So this is already a big success for our women's game."

Nikolic, who hails from a small town near the border with Montenegro, also believes the Bosnian domestic league has a problem with competition and that anyone with potential must move abroad in able to fulfill it. SFK Sarajevo have won every title since the 2002-3 season, just a year after the six-team league was formed.

Milena Nikolic on the ball for Bayer Leverkusen
Nikolic (on the ball) has missed the whole of this season through injuryImage: Tatjana Herzberg/SPP/Sports Press Photo/imago images

Another issue that holds back women's football in the country back has historically been attitudes towards it, according to the striker. "It was really, really hard," she said of dealing with negative reactions early in her career. "People would say 'women in soccer?' and 'do we have a women's team' and saying it would not be fun to watch.

"But we believed in ourselves and we had a dream and step by step we have made big success for our country and for individual players. Now we can see women's soccer is more popular and it's on the television, especially in Europe in the last year."

Nikolic believes attitudes, if not facilities and finance, have improved in recent years; and sees games like Thursday's not just as a big match, but as a chance to prove the value of the sport to those who hold the purse strings.

Injury frustrates, but dream lives on

"There are some barriers. There has not been investment and people didn't believe that we could make it as far as we have. We have to put up a big fight to try and show that we can keep getting better. But the important people in our country's association also have to believe it and be lifted by the passion. Everything needs time."

Despite the second job, Nikolic has a little more time on her hands than she'd hoped as she strives to recover from her tendon injury. Her recuperation means she can't travel to Cardiff, but she's in constant contact with her teammates and the coaching staff, offering words of motivation.

Missing out on such a big game is a test, but she's had to overcome plenty of those before. Despite the odds being against her and her country, Nikolic is hoping Leverkusen might have to hire a summer sales assistant next year when she's in Australia and New Zealand for World Cup 2023.

Edited by: Kyle Mckinnon

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