Monday, February 19, 2018
Sports

Bosnia-Herzegovina hitting big stage for first time

RIO DE JANEIRO — Bosnia-Herzegovina will make its World Cup debut today against a two-time world champion led by one of soccer's greatest players at the legendary Maracana stadium.

It's not like the Bosnians need smelling salts to get excited to face Lionel Messi's Argentina.

"The very fact that we are here for the first time, that we play a great team, that we are playing against the best player in the world … that's motivation enough," Bosnia coach Safet Susic said Saturday.

The match comes nearly 20 years after Bosnia played its first match as an independent nation in 1995, at the end of a civil war that followed the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

It will also be the first World Cup game at the Maracana since Brazil lost to Uruguay in the last round of the 1950 tournament, which remains a deep wound in Brazilian history.

"If we could choose the city or the grounds or stadium where we should play the first match, we couldn't have chosen any better than the Maracana and Rio de Janeiro," Susic said.

Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero said he, too, was inspired: "It's incredible to play in this stadium, which has so much history. It's the first time I'm here."

Bearing down: As France held its final training session inside, frantic efforts were still being made to complete work at the Estadio Beira-Rio.

Less than 24 hours before the stadium's first match, workers were strengthening the perimeter fence, installing sinks in temporary bathrooms and laying turf. Piles of bricks and wood lay around outside the 49,989 capacity stadium, along with huge puddles so deep that taxi drivers refused to ford them.

At least inside the stadium, the grass looked lush.

Despite the ongoing construction, Porto Alegre spokeswoman Nathalia Ely said there was nothing to worry about.

"Everything is ready," she said.

Concerns about the state of the 12 stadiums have dogged organizers in preparing for the tournament. Last month, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said the Estadio Beira-Rio was one of three venues he was worried about, and that organizers shouldn't "waste a minute."

Beckenbauer staying away: Franz Beckenbauer won't attend the tournament after being suspended by FIFA for refusing to cooperate with a corruption investigation. "I presume I'm no longer welcome at FIFA," the German great told Bild newspaper. FIFA confirmed Saturday that Beckenbauer, who captained and coached West Germany to win World Cups, is barred from attending matches during his 90-day ban, imposed after FIFA's ethics committee said he declined to help prosecutor Michael Garcia's probe of alleged corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes.

Perk for 2018: Fans with game tickets will be offered free ground transportation between host cities at the 2018 event in Russia. "Free travel is a guarantee which we signed at the highest level during our bid," Alexey Sorokin, head of the organizing committee, said in Rio de Janeiro. He said the free travel would be by train or bus. Though games will played only in the western part of Russia, the size of the country might still lead to some long trips between games.

Injury updates: Defender Ivan Franjic was ruled out of the remainder of Australia's campaign after injuring his left hamstring in Friday's 3-1 loss to Chile.

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