Soccer / Sports

Bosnia-Herzegovina team's special bond

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Edin Dzeko has grown tired of the same question.

"You ask me again about the war," he complained to a CNN reporter recently.

It's a fair subject, though. Because it is Dzeko's war experiences that best exemplify the resiliency and rebirth of both his homeland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its soccer team, which is taking the field in a World Cup for the first time since the country won independence in 1992.

While many of his teammates fled the country during three-year Bosnian war, Dzeko stayed. When his family's home was destroyed during the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, he moved into his grandparents' tiny one-bedroom apartment, where he lived with 15 other people.

"In Bosnia it was war between the ages of 6 and 10, so it was hard to go out and do anything or live a normal life," he has said. "But I was young. It's over now, and I don't want to speak too much about it."

Yet the war shaped him, he concedes. Shaped his teammates too.

Vedad Ibisevic, whose game-winning goal against Lithuania qualified Bosnia for the World Cup, was 7 when Serb soldiers burned down his father's village. His grandfather was murdered in the accompanying ethnic cleansing and the family fled, eventually landing in St. Louis.

Midfielder Haris Medunjanin's father also died in the fighting after the rest of the family had escaped to the Netherlands. Defender Ervin Zukanovic caught the last train out of Sarajevo, landing first in Slovenia, then Germany.

"Maybe our stories have made a special bond between us," Zukanovic, one of the final players cut from Bosnia-Herzegovina's World Cup roster, told the Telegraph of London.

But the most harrowing of those stories belongs to Dzeko, who narrowly escaped death on multiple occasions. Once he was outside kicking a ball around with some friends when his mother called him in. Seconds later a bomb landed on the ground where he had been playing.

"My gut feeling saved my son's life," his mother, Belma, said.

Dzeko, 28, works for peace now. In England, where he has helped Manchester City win two of the last three Premier League titles, he's active in charity and community work. In his still-fractured homeland, where he leads the national team in goals, he uses his role as Bosnia-Herzegovina's first UNICEF ambassador to speak in schools, preaching the importance of tolerance and overcoming the divisions of the past.

"Many of the schools are divided," he said. "It's like two schools in one, with the Bosnians on one side and the Croats on the other. I go there to try to persuade them to come together and mix, because the war led to mistrust and hate, so things are difficult."

On both Manchester City and the national team, Dzeko, a Muslim, plays alongside Serbs. So it's not surprising that Dzeko, who wept openly after Bosnia qualified for the World Cup last fall, sees both teams' successes as another useful metaphor in the struggle to reintegrate his homeland.

And he's not the only one. During a trip to Sarajevo in October, FIFA President Sepp Blatter touched on the same theme, calling Bosnia's multiethnic national team "a symbol of reconciliation and union for the whole country...once again demonstrating the powerful role of football in society."

Bosnia almost made the World Cup in 2010, then missed out on the Euros two years later, falling to Portugal in a playoff both times. The team made sure it wouldn't need a playoff this time, losing just once in 10 qualifying games to advance directly to Brazil. And in a country paralyzed by a stagnant economy, corruption and an unemployment rate of 44%, that resiliency has become a rallying point.

"It's very amazing," Zukanovic told the Telegraph. "The World Cup is the only thing at the moment to make Bosnia happy, because people don't have a real future here and are not happy about the situation in the country.

"It is important," he said. "We want to make them more proud, to give them joy."




FIFA world ranking: 5.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Two-time champion (1978, '86).

How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin winner.

It's a fact: Fans in Argentina credited "divine intervention" on the part of Buenos Aires-born Pope Francis -- a fervent soccer fan -- for their team's being drawn into what appears to be the softest of the World Cup's eight groups.

The skinny: Although its national team includes one of the best players in history in Lionel Messi, Argentina hasn't won a major championship since capturing the Copa America in 1993, when Messi was 6. Messi needs a World Cup title to secure his legacy and, playing in neighboring Brazil, he'll lead a team so explosive that Coach Alejandro Sabella will use a 4-3-3 setup to get forwards Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain on the field with him. The midfield, anchored by playmaker Angel Di Maria, and back line, led by attack-minded Pablo Zabaleta, can be exploited, though, especially if too many players push too far forward.


FIFA world ranking: 21.

Last World Cup: First appearance.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

How qualified: UEFA Group G winner.

It's a fact: Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only team making its World Cup debut this summer, will be the 77th country to appear in the tournament.

The skinny: The team narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro, losing twice in playoffs with Portugal. So after it went 8-1-1 in UEFA qualifying this time around, outscoring opponents by 24 goals to win its group and a spot in its first World Cup as an independent nation, more than 50,000 fans welcomed the team home to Sarajevo. With Manchester City's Edin Dzeko and former St. Louis University All-American Vedad Ibisevic up front, Bosnia-Herzegovina can score in bunches. But the lack of a solid holding midfielder leaves its defense vulnerable and will put pressure on keeper Asmir Begovic (Stoke City).


FIFA world ranking: 43.

Last World Cup: 2006.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: AFC Group A winner.

It's a fact: The cash-strapped Iranian soccer federation is so short of uniforms that it banned players from participating in the traditional postgame exchange of jerseys with opponents.

The skinny: Most teams are booked at lush resorts during the World Cup but Iran's short stay in Brazil will reportedly be at an airport hotel in Sao Paulo's gritty Guarulhos district. But then Iran has had to do everything on a budget in the lead-up to this World Cup, which is why it went 119 days without a game after qualifying for the tournament. Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz built his team around foreign-based players who qualify for Iranian citizenship, including San Jose's Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), Germany's Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham) and Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic), who grew up in the Netherlands.


FIFA world ranking: 44.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1994, '98).

How qualified: Beat Ethiopia in CAF playoff.

It's a fact: Nigeria's president briefly banned the national team from international competition after it went winless in its last two World Cup appearances.

The skinny: The reigning African champion, Nigeria warmed up for Brazil with unimpressive draws against Mexico, Scotland and Greece and a loss to the U.S. And though it has qualified for three of the last four World Cups, it hasn't won a game there since 1998. That hasn't hurt the team's confidence, though, with veteran goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama predicting the defense-minded team will become the first African nation to reach the semifinals. Whether that happens will depend on how often playmaking midfielder John Obi Mikel (England's Chelsea) can get the ball to Chelsea teammate Victor Moses or Emmanuel Emenike (Turkey's Fenerbahce) on the counterattack.


June 15: Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina at Rio de Janeiro.

June 16: Iran vs. Nigeria at Curitiba.

June 21: Argentina vs. Iran at Belo Horizonte; Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina at Cuiaba.

June 25: Nigeria vs. Argentina at Porto Alegre; Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran at Salvador.

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