He was 13 when he travelled to Sarajevo with friends and family to watch Bosnia & Herzegovina take on Denmark in a crucial qualifier for Euro 2004. It ended 1-1, Bosnia just missed out, and Pjanic was devastated. It was the same feeling in the 2010 World Cup play-offs (edged out of top spot by France after a controversial penalty award, and then a 2-0 aggregate defeat to Portugal), and the Euro 2012 play-offs (Portugal again, this time 6-2).
It was only when qualifying for the 2014 World Cup began that Pjanic, who had graduated from the Metz academy via Lyon to become a starring midfielder in the Roma side, had become a major figure in the Bosnia team. And that was despite coach Miroslav Blazevic handing him his international debut aged 18 in 2008, to stave off interest from France. He could also have represented Luxembourg (he played for their youth teams), where he moved to as a baby just months before a brutal civil war hit Yugoslavia and killed thousands of Bosnian Muslims in his hometown of Zvornik.
When Bosnia finally made it to Brazil 2014, beating Lithuania in their final World Cup qualifier in Kaunas, it was Pjanic who made it happen.
He robbed an opponent in midfield, played a smart one-two and released Zvjezdan Misimovic who crossed for Vedad Ibisevic to score the winning goal. They call the pass before an assist a ‘hockey assist’ and it was significant that Misimovic was the recipient: Blazevic always said that Pjanic and Misimovic were incompatible in the same team.
Pjanic wept tears of joy at the final whistle: “Ever since that day I watched us lose to Denmark, I’ve been dreaming of representing my country in a big tournament and now we are there,” he said. “This is what we live for.”
Bosnian journalist Albinko Hasic explains: “Pjanic has always been a boom-or-bust, feast-or-famine type of player but this season we are witnessing the guy who used to be nicknamed ‘The Little Prince’ fast becoming a king.”
Bosnia was the beneficiary in October, when the team needed to beat Wales and Cyprus to see off Israel and Cyprus for third spot in Group B. In the absence of Edin Dzeko, it was Pjanic who provided the leadership and drive in midfield to force two scrappy but crucial wins.
Pjanic is currently spearheading Roma’s challenge for the Scudetto (more than Dzeko who has scored just twice for his new club this season) and has five goals and five assists in 10 Serie A matches. In the Champions League, he has two goals and one assist in three matches. That’s a goal or assist every 86 minutes. Roma fans now love him. Gazzetta dello Sport has described him as ‘Tottic’ and in Italy he is known as ‘veneziano’: a player whose close-control skills are so good, it’s as though they grew up in Venice where you need sublime skills to stop the ball falling into the water.
He has had his moments with Roma fans, not least in summer 2013 when, after Roma had lost the Coppa Italia final to fierce rivals Lazio, he was quoted as saying the defeat had ‘hurt less’ because Lazio’s match-winner was Senad Lulic, a fellow Bosnian. That did not go down well with fans, even if it proved that for Pjanic, international ties trump city spats.
Now, though, Roma and Bosnia fans are united in their love for Pjanic — especially if an opponent concedes a free-kick within shooting distance of goal. This season, Pjanic has taken over the mantle of Andrea Pirlo as free-kick specialist extraordinaire, scoring four this season from just six efforts. His recent effort in the 4-4 draw against Bayer Leverkusen was a perfect example. It was 25 yards out, in a central position. Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno must have known that his last three goals had all been curled into the top-right corner, as he took one step to the right of centre, as though offering him the left-side. Pjanic accepted the invitation. Leno dived towards his top-left, but Pjanic had found the top corner, again.
His free-kick technique has been put down to the time he spent after training in his first year at Lyon, 2008-09, when he crossed paths with Juninho Pernambucano, who was Pirlo’s inspiration. “We used to stay back after training and practice,” Juninho said. “You could see he had talent and a great desire to learn. When I left Lyon, he took my No. 8 shirt.”
Pjanic has played down the Brazilian’s influence. “The answer is simple, it’s all about training,” he told Dnenvi List. I’ve practised about ten thousand free kicks from every single position on the pitch. It takes more than 10 years to learn.”
As Pjanic told the Bosnian press last month: “I’m finally playing the way I’ve always envisioned myself, tough, precise and with purpose. This has been my mantra. I’m playing aggressively and the way Miralem Pjanic knows how to play.”
This is the real danger to Ireland. He is no longer Pjanic the Brazilian’s apprentice, or Pjanic the veneziano. He has purpose, determination and is in the type of form that can turn a close game — especially from a dead-ball situation.
“Mire has incredible quality. I expect him to become even more decisive from less central positions,” Juninho warned. “I would say he’s the best free-kick taker in the world today.”