Bosnia: Divided by war, united by football

On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey James Montague

Editor’s Note: CNN is serializing extracts from Thirty-One Nil, a new book from author James Montague, who traveled the globe documenting qualifying games for the World Cup. For thousands of Bosnians displaced by war in the 1990s, football is a symbol of national identity. In September 2013 they faced the biggest game in their history.

Chapter 3

Žilina, Slovakia, September 2013

Slovakia’s third largest city is close to the Low Tatras Mountains, the natural border with Poland. The cold wind and rain hint at snow and winter’s early arrival. On the pitch, the Bosnia national football team is training in silence ahead of their next World Cup qualifier against Slovakia in 24 hours’ time.

Their coach, Safet Sušić, buried deep in a thermal jacket and hood, is being soaked by a nagging drizzle. The 50 or so Bosnian journalists watching in the stands shuffle their feet and chain-smoke to keep warm. But they, too, watch in silence. No one – not the players, the coach or the journalists – looks as if they want to be here. Which is strange.

Bosnia are currently top of Group G in World Cup qualification. It has been an incredible campaign so far. They have scored more goals than anyone else, smashing 23 in six qualifiers, at almost four a game. They are unbeaten and cruising towards their first World Cup finals since Bosnia became an independent nation.

Bosnia’s first XI would not be disgraced at any World Cup finals either. Up front they have Manchester City’s Edin Džeko and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibišević to score the goals, Roma’s Miralem Pjanić provides the midfield guile and, in defence, captain Emir Spahić and goalkeeper Asmir Begović have raised a formidable barrier.

Žilina is full. It is impossible to get a room in the city as almost every ticket had been bought by traveling Bosnia fans. The stadium could hold 11,000 and it is thought at least 8,000 will be Bosnian. It has been the same at every away match in qualification. “The love people have for their country is amazing,” Begović says.

The Bosnian war has much to do with the attendance. Back in 1992 Bosnia declared independence. It was always a multi-ethnic nation within the Yugoslav republic; half-Bosnian Muslim and the rest largely Serb and Croat. But during the subsequent war it tore itself apart from the inside as communities turned on each other.

As many as 100,000 people died in two-and-a-half years, leaving behind familiar names for ever associated with bloodshed. There was, of course, the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern European warfare, and the massacre of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian men, from boys to pensioners, were murdered by a Serb militia.

Asmir Begovic made his debut for Bosnia’s senior side in 2009.

The country’s name is synonymous with tragedy and every player and every fan has their story. Begović left his town in eastern Bosnia, where the worst massacres took place, when he was four years old.

“My parents and grandparents who had built a life in Bosnia had lost everything,” he says of that time. His family ended up in Germany and then in Canada. “We lived in a Bosnian way wherever we lived, whether that was Germany or Canada,” he says. He speaks now in a broad North American accent.

“We took everyone’s culture on board but we were always Bosnian.” Begović got out but Džeko stayed, in Sarajevo. “I was six when the war started,” he told football writer Jonathan Wilson in 2012. “It was terrible. My house was destroyed so we went to live with my grandparents. The whole family was there, maybe 15 people, all staying in an apartment about 35 meters square. It was very hard. We were stressed every day in case somebody we knew died.”

When the war finished, football resumed, but only after the pitch of the city’s biggest club, Željezničar Sarajevo, the club Džeko would go on to play for, was cleared of mines.

“When the war finished,” Džeko believed, “I was much stronger, mentally.” Which is why Begović believes the national team is so important to Bosnians. Other than the legitimacy that a World Cup final infers – former Croatian president Franco Tudjman told then Croatia captain Igor Štimac that the national team had done more for the state than any single politician – the Dragons have become a rallying point for the refugees, and the sons and daughters of refugees, displaced by the war. War destroyed Bosnia but it also spread Bosnians far and wide.

Every game this qualifying we’ve pretty much been playing at home, even when we’re away.

“The war took people all over Europe, all over the world,” he says. “When we have this game it brings people together and they travel from far away to support us. It gives us an extra edge and a push.” The dual immigrant identity had caused a dilemma for Begović. Before Bosnia he had previously represented Canada’s Under 20s.

In Canada Begović’s “defection” didn’t go down well. “I had to get on with my life as it was,” he recalls of his decision to represent Canada.

“When the opportunity came it was a difficult decision. But I never had family getting to watch games. My family comes to every Bosnia game home and away. Uncles, aunties; that’s where your identity is and that’s what makes you feel proud to represent your family and represent your country. It does mean a little more. I didn’t take playing for Canada for granted but it was a stronger pull to play for Bosnia.”

Bosnia now had a choice. If the team lost again it was to be the play-offs again. Safet Sušić – himself considered both the greatest Bosnian and the greatest Paris Saint-Germain player of all time, who represented Yugoslavia at the 1982 and 1990 World Cup finals – had been in charge of that game at the Stade de France. It’s unlikely he’ll survive another near miss. “We’ve never qualified for a major tournament before so we don’t know how we do it, until we do it,” Begović admits.

“Once we get there we’ll know how we’ll do it and do it again.” With a population of under four million, Bosnia is punching above its weight even getting this far. Eighteen years ago Bosnia didn’t even have a team, as such. The Dragons played their first official friendly against Albania in Tirana.

The team originally only had eight players and had to buy their own kit from a sports shop in Zagreb. The match took place in 1995, just nine days after the signing of the Dayton Agreement that ended the war.

“I remember that I gathered my assistants and we decided that, if we couldn’t find more players, we should play,” Bosnia’s first coach Fuad Muzurović told football writer Saša Ibrulj of that game. “We just wanted to have a national team, no matter the squad, no matter the performance, no matter the result.” Bosnia lost 2-0. Now, 18 years later, it is on the brink of Brazil 2014. “Everyone lives in the past and with what happened 20 ago,” says Begović before he leaves the noise of the lobby and the fans, still singing their sad old songs by the bar. “But if we accomplish something, it is to say: ‘It’s a new country, it’s a new way and a new future.’”

On a stage at the edge of Andrej Hlinka Square in Žilina’s historic old centre, a Bosnian turbo folk band is reaching a dizzying crescendo. Both here and the nearby Marianske town squares are covered in the yellow and blue of the Bosnian flag.

A huge version is unfolded on the floor, covering a third of the area. Almost every Bosnian tribe is represented here. Second-generation teenage girls from Sweden; covered, devout women from Sarajevo; drunken young boys who have driven 20 hours from Tuşla; a smart group of Americans who are staying at the best hotel in town; a young family from Germany.

Bosnian fans gather in Zilina’s main square.

“There’s only one word: love. We love our Bosnia,” shouts Fahrudin, a middle-aged supporter sitting at a bar on the square. He has a grey beard and red fez on his head, furtively taking swigs from a bottle of Bosnian wine he’s hidden under his table. Like his friend Jad he fled to London during the war and stayed, picking up a slight English inflection along the way. “It will be the first time we’d have qualified for the World Cup since the war has ended, since we became independent,” explains Jad.

“I came to London in 1992 and still live there. But I love Bosnia. Never forget where you come from. Since the war there are so many people across the world. There will be people here from USA, Canada. Asmir Begović grew up in Canada. Ibišević grew up in America. Most of our players did.”

What will it mean, World Cup qualification, for such a new country, I ask.

“Look at the expectations of people, there are 7,000 here,” he replies. “Some people here will probably earn £350 a month in Bosnia. They will put most of their monthly budget into this game. They killed our people for so long and we want to show them what we are made of.”

Fahrudin is less happy. “We are not a new country, mate. We are not a new country,” he puffs angrily, getting red in the cheeks as he shakes his head. “We are a very, very old country. We are the oldest country in the Balkans.

“NEVER SAY THAT AGAIN,” he shouts. “Never say that again. We are older than Serbia and Croatia.” He is the only Bosnian I had seen get remotely angry all day. “We love our country,” he apologizes, holding me by the shoulder in an iron grip. “We will beat them tonight 2-0. We are very proud.”

As planned, the Štadion pod Dubňom is full of Bosnian supporters. A small square of Slovaks in white shirts fills a white corner of the stadium, but they can’t be heard. The Bosnian team’s hotel has been full of hundreds of Bosnia fans waiting to see the players leave for the game.

The sound in the stadium is deafening as the teams come out for the national anthems. Slovakia’s is warmly applauded when it is played, a gesture of gratitude from the fans who have invaded their city.

Bosnia unleash everything they have at Slovakia, who will still have a mathematical chance of qualifying if they win here and Latvia hold Greece to a draw.

But they are wasteful in front of goal. Slovakia have already had a goal disallowed for a dubious offside when they go in front. Napoli’s Marek Hamšik scores, firing a brilliant shot across Begović into the bottom right-hand corner. The crowd are stunned. It looks like Bosnia are about to choke again. In the second half the Dragons do what Sušić has taught them to do best. They attack, but can’t break down the Slovakians.

Then, with 20 minutes to go, Ermin Bičakčič pokes the ball in from close range to bring the house down. But it won’t be enough. Greece are a machine, and they’re beating Latvia 1-0.

Eight minutes later Izet Hajrović, a Swiss-born Bosnian who had once played for Switzerland, is brought on. His very first touch is to blast the ball with his left foot from 30 yards into the top right-hand corner of the goal.

Slovakia have been eliminated but Bosnia have done it. They have won, but, more importantly, they have come back and won. After the referee blows the final whistle the players mob coach Safet Sušić as the crowd celebrates.

Copyright James Montague, 2014. From Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey, published by Bloomsbury in the UK at £12.99 from May 22, 2014.