It is Friday morning, May 16, opening day of training camp for the Bosnian team, which in October qualified for this year’s World Cup in Brazil, its first such success as a modern-day independent nation. Without a doubt, most citizens agree, the national soccer team’s qualification is the greatest thing they have experienced during a postwar period beset by government dysfunction, 60-percent unemployment and unresolved ethnic discord among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
It has been raining nonstop since Tuesday evening. While most of the water has run off, it remains in the southwestern corner of the field, making it look more like a marsh than a soccer pitch. Still, Sarajevo is one of the luckier places in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the rain continues through Saturday, May 18, causing catastrophic flooding and mudslides that leave an estimated 500,000 people homeless in this nation of four million. Images of destroyed and damaged homes, dead farm animals floating in the water and distraught families fill the nightly news. It is Bosnia’s worst catastrophe since the Bosnian War, which created two million refugees and left 100,000 people, mostly civilians, dead.
The Bosnian team bus is scheduled to arrive at 9:30 a.m., allowing the players to take the field by 10:00. Senad, Nihad and Sead, who are quick to invite a stranger for coffee, still have work to do.
By 8:00, the rain has paused, giving Nihad a chance to string the nets, which he carts to the field in an old wheelbarrow, onto the goals. Senad and Sead lay down the chalk, stretching a cable between the corners to make sure their lines are straight. They are applying a few finishing touches to the field when husky Securitas officers in dark blue and black bomber jackets swing open the gates to let in the bus, greeted by some 100 clapping fans, young and old, all with hope and pride in their eyes. Head coach Safet Sušić, one of the greatest soccer players ever produced by the former Yugoslavia, and whose birthplace, a village 100 kilometers (65 mi) north of Sarajevo called Zavidovići, is flooded, looks back through the dark windows and gives a short wave.
The doors open and 16 of the world’s best soccer players descend, wearing their practice gear. They include Miralem Pjanić, 24, a baby-faced midfielder for AS Roma, whose fans call him “The Little Prince”; Mensur Mujdža, 30, a defender who played for SC Freiburg in Germany’s Bundesliga, coming off an injury that nearly cost him a spot on the roster for Brazil; backup goalie Asmir Avdukić, 33, the sole player who didn’t play abroad, instead choosing to tend net for FK Borac in Banja Luka, capital of the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two political entities; and temperamental striker Vedad Ibišević, 29, whose grandfather and 20 other relatives were killed during the war, and who now stars for VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga.
The field looks beautiful—slick, but ready for action. “There are just three of us, but we get the job done,” says Senad, the youngest member of the grounds crew, as if the outcome has never been in doubt. “The last few days we did nothing but work. We all worked to make this happen.”
Some Bosnians say confidence was once rare in Bosnia, of late a hard-luck nation located in a Balkan region famous for its fatalism. This collection of soccer players, however, is changing that.
“Bosnians and Serbs have this inclination for pessimism and depression, a loser’s mentality. We lacked optimism,” says Marjan Mijajlović, a gravelly voiced sports commentator and Bosnian Serb. He calls the games for Sarajevo-based FACE-TV and, during a match in 2009, gave the team its nickname: “Zmajevi,” or “Dragons,” which he derived from a 19th-century Bosnian military hero, Husein Kapetan Gradaščević, who is celebrated in a sevdah, or traditional Bosnian song, that refers to him as a dragon.
But things are changing, says Mijajlović, 42. “Look at Džeko, and how he plays with confidence,” he notes, referring to 28-year-old forward Edin Džeko, who in 2008-2009 led upstart VfL Wolfsburg to its first Bundesliga title before moving in 2011 to Manchester City, where he helped the team capture two English Premier League titles in three years. “If you believe you won’t lose, you won’t lose.”
Besides coming from a small country with modest resources and a small pool of players from which to select its team, what makes Bosnia’s World Cup qualification even more improbable is that most of its players were kids when the war broke out. Now they are taking this soccer-mad nation to its first-ever World Cup, giving some joy to people who badly need it.
Not everybody is cheering, however. Serb and Croat nationalists who want to secede from Bosnia root against the Bosnian squad.
The team, mostly Bosnian Muslim but including several Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, has emerged as an international soccer contender and as a counterweight to Bosnia’s nationalists, proof of what the country’s different ethnic groups can achieve when they work together. Indeed, 32-year-old midfielder Zvjezdan Misimović, a Serb who delivers the assists, and Džeko, a Muslim and the team’s top scorer, form the team’s most prolific point-making combo. Today, a growing number of the country’s Serbs and Croats are beginning to cheer for the Bosnian team, and some observers wonder whether it can accomplish what armies of peacekeepers, politicians, diplomats and foreign-aid workers have been unable to do: unite the country.
“We don’t have these problems in the team. We are all like one,” says Elvir Rahimić, 38, a star midfielder with pfc cska Moscow, where he is called “The General.” He played for Bosnia throughout qualification, but Sušić asked him to be an assistant coach in Brazil.
“We’d like to see Bosnia and Herzegovina function like the team. That would be ideal,” Rahimić says. “We don’t look at who is what [nationality], what the names are. There’s none of that. We hope the politicians can do the same in the government as what we’ve done in the national team. That would be super for this country.”
Unlike with many teams who close their training to the public, the Bosnian training sessions, two hours each, twice a day, are open, and this Friday afternoon, a few hundred fans ignore a light rain and head toward chipped concrete bleachers that can hold 1500 spectators. There are kids in track suits, middle-aged and older men with blue berets, young women in designer jeans and moms with small kids. Asim Zukanović, an older gentleman, has come directly to the stadium from having a wisdom tooth removed.
Sušić, with his four assistants, Rahimić, Borce Sredojević, Elvir Baljić and Tomislav Piplica, is addressing the players, who are split into teams of four and standing in a 30-by-30-meter (33-by-33-yd) square bordered by plastic orange-and-yellow discs.
“There are no goals. This is about reaction,” Sušić, 58, offers. He blows his whistle and throws the ball into the middle of the players, who explode into action.
The pace in the tight space is lightning-quick. Players deftly collect low, hard passes fired to them from approximately five, 10 meters away, and then fire equally hard passes to nearby teammates before a defender flies in. There is no dribbling. Players take just one or two touches before getting rid of the ball. At this level, a third touch gives a defender time to swoop in and break up the play.
The intensity is obvious. When Pjanić misplays a high ball to an opponent, he yells, sinks to his knees and buries his face in his hands. A moment later he is up and chasing the play.
Amid constant chatter between players, Sušić shouts out instructions: “Switch fields, lift your heads up!” “Look for a solution faster!” “Don’t hang on to the ball!” When Sead Kolašinac, a 20-year-old defender from the Bundesliga club Schalke 04, waits too long to make a pass, giving a defender a chance to knock it away, Sušić yells out, “You waiting for him to say hello?”
It’s ironic coming from Sušić, who was a dazzling dribbler for FK Sarajevo, Paris Saint-Germain (where fans voted him the club’s greatest non-French player) and the Yugoslav national team. His feats are preserved on YouTube, and there is even a Bosnian song celebrating his skills, “Not Alone, Safet.”
Sušić is credited with instilling an offense-driven, creative, fun-to-watch brand of soccer that results in lots of goals, making the Bosnians a favorite among soccer enthusiasts outside of Bosnia. Indeed, the 30 goals Bosnia scored in European qualifying trailed only England, Germany and the Netherlands. “They are always looking to attack,” says Luc Hagège, a reporter for the French sports daily L’équipe who grew up watching Sušić and credits him with making him a soccer lover.
Soccer is an important part of Bosnian culture, and full-size and miniature soccer fields are plentiful in cities and the countryside. Austro-Hungarian soldiers introduced the game in the late 19th century and the first clubs sprang up before World War i. After World War ii, Yugoslavia became a soccer power, appearing in eight of 14 World Cups and reaching the semifinals twice, before it dissolved in 1990. Prior to Sušić, there was Vahid Halilhodžić, another Paris Saint-Germain standout, who will also be at the World Cup as head coach for Algeria, and Asim “Hase” Ferhatović, another great dribbler who played for Sarajevo, whose skills are memorialized on YouTube in a song in his honor, “The Sunday That Hase Left.”
That is the legacy the current generation of Bosnian players was set to inherit—until the war erupted. Most of them were youngsters when the conflict began. Some grew up in Bosnia under the threat of snipers and shellfire, others left with their families, and a few players were born outside of Bosnia.
Džeko has recalled in interviews how his family’s house was damaged by shellfire. That forced a move to another home where displaced family members were already staying.
Ibišević, 29, was quoted in the May edition of ESPN Magazine about how, at age seven, he hid in a hole his mother dug in the forest outside their village of Gerovi, hoping his sleeping little sister wouldn’t wake up and alert Serbian paramilitaries conducting house-to-house searches a few hundred meters away. His family left Bosnia in 2000 and, after a short stop in Switzerland, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, home to the biggest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia.
There, in 2003, the National Collegiate Athletic Association named the St. Louis University athlete the only freshman on the list of its most valuable Division i soccer players. This came after Ibišević, whose short hair has begun to grey, had been named to the All-America first team by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and Freshman of the Year by Conference usa.
Asmir Begović, who tends net for Stoke City in England and is viewed as one of the top three goalies in the English Premier League, left Trebinje in southern Bosnia with his family when he was three, and he knew he wanted to be a professional goalie, like his father, after putting on his first gloves as a refugee in Germany at age four. When he was 10, his family moved again, to Edmonton, Canada, where he also played baseball, volleyball, basketball and tennis.
Begović takes his journey in stride. “We could have buckled as a family, but thankfully we stuck together,” says the 26-year-old, who is married and has a young daughter. “We just saw it as this is the way life took us; things happen for a reason. And I think that was the best attitude we could have had. This experience obviously made me grow a little more quickly, having to deal with a little more responsibility.”
Begović eventually played for Canada’s Under 20 squad—one of nine players who played for the national youth teams of other countries before joining the Bosnian team. While many of his teammates who grew up in France, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere as refugees say their decisions about whether to play for Bosnia or their adopted countries came easily, Begović needed time to reflect.
“I had a lot of relationships and friends in Canada. It was a pretty important part of my life; it was difficult to leave them,” says Begović, whose parents encouraged him to integrate into Canadian life, while speaking, reading and cooking Bosnian at home. “But representing Bosnia was something I couldn’t turn down. A lot of my family is here, so I can share these experiences with them. I was born here and that’s a huge connection.”
If Bosnia wins the World Cup in July, nine-year-old Irfan Vugdalić, who is kicking a soccer ball with Arnel Arnautovic, 11, in a hilltop meadow next to a new field and training center approved by soccer’s world body fifa in Zenica, 75 kilometers (47 mi) northwest of Sarajevo, says he’ll celebrate by building a bonfire on that spot. From here, you can see Bilino Polje stadium in downtown Zenica, where Bosnia played its home qualifying matches, going four and one. A Catholic church steeple rises above the west end of the stadium; a minaret looks over the east end; and billowing smokestacks from the steel factories tower over both.
Vugdalić’s father, Suad, 38, has other dreams. “If I had the chance to leave here, I would. I don’t even have to think about it,” he says.
He and his son go to the field to play soccer almost every day, but on this Monday afternoon, the day before the catastrophic rains, they are here earlier than usual. About an hour before, around 3:30, a man shot and killed another man in a dispute involving money and ethnic graffiti.
Suad Vugdalić acknowledges, however, that life was better when Zenica, which locals proudly call the Dragons’ Nest, hosted the Bosnian soccer team. Consider its final home qualifier against Lichtenstein.
“Nobody was home. Everybody was on the streets. And there were no problems. Just happiness,” he recalls. “Nobody thought about unemployment or work or who was what religion.
“It took us back to the days when we all lived together. There were even Serbs from Banja Luka and Bijeljina buying Bosnian uniforms.”
“That was unimaginable a few years ago,” adds his wife, Arnela. “Many people are starting to believe in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state.”
Besides their winning ways, what makes these players endearing to fellow Bosnians is that they experienced the hardships of war and refugee life like them. At the same time, the players, after living through hard times and having friends and family in Bosnia, know that many Bosnians still have hard lives. Indeed, between the stadium and the Hotel Herzegovina where they are staying, scenes of struggle are routinely visible from the team bus: farmworkers hunch over in fields; a man with one leg hobbles on crutches; an elderly woman, pale, begs; stray dogs ramble everywhere. This makes them a down-to-earth bunch, happy to oblige requests for autographs or to have their pictures taken with adoring fans at their hotel in between practices.
“We know what people have been through during the war,” says midfielder Senijad Ibričić, 28, the youngest of five brothers, who learned to play soccer in a refugee camp outside of Zagreb. “Soccer gives people some happiness in their hearts, and that gives us the heart to fight.”
They try to find other ways to help, too. Begović started a foundation that builds recreational facilities for kids in Bosnia and England, while Džeko makes almost as much news for his charitable ventures as he does for his goals. Halfway through their training camp, they play a fundraising game against the country’s Under 21 team in Gradačac in the north. Local papers report how Pjanić stopped at a pharmacy on the way to buy supplies for flood victims. Between practices on a Sunday, several of the players take calls for a telethon to raise money for a new bone-marrow-transplant hospital.
After an hour of talking, Rahimić, Kolašinac, Avdukić and another back-up goalie, Jasmin Fejzić, 28, slip outside for espressos. They debate with a hotel waiter about whether FK Čelik, the team from Zenica whose weekend game against Sarajevo had been cancelled because of the flooding, was any good.
Players acknowledge that representing their country in its first World Cup will be a challenge, but they still exude confidence. “To overcome this, we only have to relax and enjoy, and not to be afraid. We know we are a good team,” says 22-year-old midfielder Izet Hajrović, who scored the winning goal—a rocket from 25 meters (27 yds) out—against Slovakia that kept the team at the top of its group, setting it up to qualify for Rio.
That attitude has rubbed off on many Bosnians.
“They have given the kids confidence. They’ve shown that Bosnians are a talented people, and that to succeed we just need to work hard,” says Mensur Milak, headmaster of the Mak Dizdar Primary School in Zenica. “This is a big thing for Bosnia and Herzegovina. It goes beyond soccer.”
Talent and hard work brought this group of players together, but the right chemistry, they all agree, has been essential to success. That starts with the coaches: three Muslims, a Bosnian Serb and a Bosnian Croat.
“Our relations are based on strong friendship, honesty and respect, and that’s helped build unity, cohesiveness and a work ethic,” says assistant coach Sredojević, 56, who is Serbian. To be successful with players, he adds, “You have to be seen as a friend.”
But maintaining the right chemistry sometimes seems easier said than done, especially given the pressure to win games in Brazil, and to lift and possibly unite a divided country. After Bosnia lost a friendly match to Egypt in February, there was some “confusion” in the locker room, admits Ermin Bičakčić, a defender who signed with 1899 Hoffenheim in late May. During the training sessions, tempers occasionally flare, or players collide and hit the ground while clutching their ankles, eliciting a nervous gasp from the spectators.
Bičakčić, 24, who scored the pivotal tying goal in the club’s 2-1 win against Slovakia during qualifying, believes the team has tamed any threats to its unity. “We’ve grown up as team,” he says in fluent German. “No player won alone. And all of us have a big motivation to do something for the people who have been through so much. And this motivation is what creates the chemistry.
“Everyone has a story. Everyone has their memories. Yes, it’s all in the past, but we never forget where we are from.”
It is Wednesday morning and the sun is shining on Stadion FK Famos. Players are in two lines facing each other, rifling passes between before sprinting to the end of the line. They are quick on their feet and the concentration shows on their faces. The idea is for the team members to find a rhythm with one another, taking off from their line at the right moment. A step too soon or too late and the timing collapses.
“Teamwork is important,” Sušić tells them.
Defender Muhamed Bešić looks fit and sharp, despite joining the team a few days late because of commitments to his club, Ferencvárosi in Budapest. Sušić has called Bešić, 21, the only person on the team capable of covering Argentina’s Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s greatest player, in the team’s very first World Cup match.
Bešić recalls being nervous before his first youth practice, for a team called Tiergarten in Berlin, where he was born. But he isn’t the least bit nervous now, despite the task ahead of him.
“I’m not thinking about playing against Messi. I see him as another player. I just focus on my game,” says Bešić, whose arms are covered in tattoos, including a set that reads, “Mama,” “Papa,” “Faruk” (his brother), and “Falešići,” the town about 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Sarajevo where his family is from. Although Bosnia is the underdog, Bešić believes the team can win.
“Why play soccer if you don’t play to win,” he says, mindful that the best hopes of a diverse young country are riding with him and his fellow Dragons.
||Omar Sacirbey ([email protected]) is a correspondent for the Religion News Service and a former Bosnian diplomat during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. The son of Bosnian refugees who came to America in 1967, he grew up loving soccer and is now a youth soccer coach.
||Haris Memija ([email protected]) is a photojournalist in Sarajevo who works mainly for Xinhua News Agency; he is also represented by Corbis Images.