Let's just say it's a pivotal Saturday for Balkan football. Bosnia-Hercegovina plays the first leg of a two-match "winner-take-a-World Cup-slot" against Portugal in Lisbon. (Return leg in Zenica on Wednesday.) And Slovenia takes on Russia in Moscow on the same day, with the final match taking place in Maribor on Wednesday.
Jonathan Wilson has a terrific preview of the latter pairing here -- including YouTube links to some of Slovenia's astounding international giant-killing antics. (Milenko Acimovic's stunner against Ukraine in 2000 is still a wonder goal for the ages.)
As far as the other match, Wilson also notes that Bosnia's coach Ciro Blazevic "has promised an aggressive approach, which given Bosnia both scored more and conceded more than any other team in the play-offs, makes sense." Especially against a Ronaldo-less Portugal.
My prediction is that Slovenia will likely need a Maribor miracle, because I don't see them winning or even drawing in Moscow. Bosnia? Well, if they leave Lisbon with a tie (and even better, a tie with an away goal), they have an excellent chance to go through with other Balkans via Bohemia nations Serbia and Slovakia.
Zenica will be a cauldron on Wednesday night if Bosnia has a World Cup slot within its grasp.
Football fans of any stripe will also be interested in checking out a new soccer ranking system -- the Soccer Power Index -- devised by statitstical guru Nate Silver for ESPN.
Silver has won renown for his excellent statistical work on baseball and politics. (His website FiveThirtyEight is a daily pit stop for Balkans via Bohemia, both for Silver's work and the political analysis of my UMBC colleague Tom Schaller.) Silver's new SPI is sure to spark heat and light. He's got a general explanation here, and a more detailed breakdown of his methodology here. Extrapolating from Silver's data, here is a cobbled-together Balkans via Bohemia power ranking -- by region and by actual SPI ranking and whether they qualified for South Africa 2010:
1. Serbia (15) Qualified
2. Croatia (19) DNQ
3. Czech Republic (25) DNQ
4. Bosnia-Hercegovina (29) Playoff
5. Slovenia (40) Playoff
6. Bulgaria (47) DNQ
7. Romania (48) DNQ
8. Slovakia (50) Qualified
9. Poland (52) DNQ
10. Hungary (55) DNQ
11. Austria (66) DNQ
12. Macedonia (70) DNQ
13. Montenegro (74) DNQ
14. Albania (92) DNQ