Soccer provides glimpse of Bosnia’s enduring divisions
Country’s impressive foreign legion guaranteed to provide stiff test of Republic’s resolve
Roma’s Bosnia-Herzegovina international Edin Dzeko spent his early years in war-torn Sarajevo. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
In his remarkable book about the Bosnian war, Anthony Loyd recalls the first time after arriving in the country that he saw a dead body. He was shown it by children, “a tough little street gang of 10 year-olds led by a kid with a revolver”, who warned him as he peered into no man’s land from a ruined building on the conflict’s frontline that “you must be quick or the snipers will get you”.
This was Sarajevo in the early nineties; the city and time in which former Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko grew up. On a bad day more than 1,000 rounds of one type or another could rain down upon the city from the surrounding forces. Death, or the threat or it, would have been a daily reality for the young boy whose living conditions became ever more cramped as buildings were destroyed and relatives moved in together.
But football was the other reality. And, as his mother recalls, the man who we now know to be Bosnia and Herzegovina's all-time leading goalscorer would have died - as many others did one particular day - had she let him out to play on the little sheltered piece of land where he liked to kick his ball. That day a shell hit that piece of land at the exact time he would have been there. Dzeko and his family stuck it out and stayed through the war. Others left as it loomed large on the horizon or escaped with their lives after it had begun. Vedad Ibisevic recalls as a seven-year-old hiding in a hole in his back garden as Serb soldiers ransacked the family home in Vlasenica.
Whenever there was danger part of his job was to keep his three-year-old sister from crying. He knew enough to take the job seriously. His mother’s father had been murdered in Pijuke and 21 of his father’s extended family were among the 100,000 who perished in the conflict.
Ibisevic ended up in Switzerland, then the United States after his mother gave a soldier the keys of their house to allow the family on to a bus to safety. Others were already gone. Asmir Begovic, Miralen Pjanic and Senad Lulic are among the members of the squad for Friday’s game to have grown up abroad.
A few were born in the countries where their parents took refuge and Everton midfielder Muhamed Besic says he had the chance to play for Germany as a teenager. When your family history reads like this, though, choosing what country to play for is unlikely to come down to how best to advance your career.
Football, of course, is linked in a thousand different ways to all that has gone on before, during and since the war. There are those who describe the leaders of the various factions as little more than thugs who, in some cases, had led gangs of club-related hooligans before they found a bigger stage on which to fight.
During the conflict, FK Sarajevo smuggled a squad out of the besieged city and went on a 54-match tour of 17 countries in an attempt to publicise the fate of a city where more than 11,000 would die in the three and a half years leading up to November 1995.
It will be 20 years on Saturday week since the framework agreement that brought an end to the fighting was reached. Inevitably, no deal would have satisfied everyone by that stage but there was at least widespread relief that the killing and dying would stop.
Getting to the stage where everyone might unite behind a national team though, is quite another thing. Matters may not have been helped by the debts that were owed in the wake of the war. Arranging a friendly in Iran, for instance, which had previously been supportive of the FK Sarajvo tour, cost the association one manager in May 2008.
There was a shady financial aspect to it all too and the incident prompted a player strike that led to a charity all-star game attracting more than 15,000 fans to the Kosevo stadium in Sarajevo while 150 or so showed up in Zenica to see the national team play against Azerbaijan.
Miroslav Blazevic, a Bosnian Croat, took over and, building on the earlier efforts of Blaz Sliskovic, renewed the effort to assemble all the nation’s available talents in one team. “We are too small a country to be divided,” he said as Bosnian born players like Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren, Neven Subotic and Nikica Jelavic opted to play for neighbouring nations. “On my team, everybody likes each other and I’m their father.”
The team came close to achieving their first qualification in 2010 and 2012 before Ibisevic’s winning goal against Lithuania in Vilnius earned them a place at the 2014 World Cup under successor Safet Susic.
Football, though, provides a window into the nation’s enduring divisions and so while Sarajevo and other predominantly Muslim areas celebrated, local Serbs and Croats largely ignored and often resented the success.
Some, especially among the Croat community are said to be coming around these days to a side that, partly because of the defections, only really includes a few non “Bosniaks” (who comprise 48 per cent of the population like Croat Toni Sunjic and Serb Milan Djuric).
Crucially though, after early attempts at positive discrimination aimed at achieving a mix, there seems to be a sense that the best players now get picked for the team and at under-age levels things are much more representative.
Ibisevic believes it remains an example of how the country as a whole might one day get along. “I love my team,” he said in an interview with ESPN last year.
“I love my team-mates. Just the fact that we get along perfectly. We have no problems with each other. We have all kinds of different people on the team and everyone gets along. I love that fact. It’s a proof for the country that it could work.”