Dzeko, child of Sarajevo, grows into humble star for rising Bosnia
ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The lights in tower blocks that stand at one end of the Bilino Polje Stadium glimmer through a thick haze. It feels foggy, as it always does on match nights in Zenica, the industrial town where Bosnia-Herzegovina plays its home matches, but this isn't mist; rather it's the oily smoke from the dozens of cevapi stalls that line the streets around the ground. And if you peer hard enough through the murk, you see the same face staring back from every T-shirt stall: Edin Dzeko.
Dzeko is by no means the only talented player in this Bosnia side. Roma's Miralem Pjanic, operating on the right, was sensationally good in the 3-0 win over Lithuania on Tuesday. But Dzeko is by far the highest profile and by far the most popular. His is a fame that extends beyond football; he may be the most famous Bosnian in the world. On the souvenir stands in the old town in Mostar, two names and two faces dominate: Dzeko and Josip Tito, who ruled the former Yugoslavia for decades before his death in 1980.
The crowd in Zenica was typically noisy -- it's a small and ramshackle ground, but the noise it generates is extraordinary; it's easy to see why Bosnia continues to play a little over an hour from Sarajevo -- but the only player named in a fans' chant was Dzeko, his name being repeated after he had casually rolled in Bosnia's second.
Yet Dzeko is a player Bosnians have had to learn to love. When Teplice offered Zeljeznicar €25,000 for him in 2005, the Bosnian club's hierarchy thought the sum so preposterous they broke out the champagne. "We thought we'd won the lottery," one director admitted. Dzeko was lanky and clumsy and, as that same director put it, looked "a bit English." Bosnian football, which respected dribbling ability above all else, was baffled by him: what did he do? How could you use a center forward who never beat three men and rolled the ball past the goalkeeper?
Dzeko became a figure of fun, acquiring the nickname "Kloc" -- the local slang term for a lamp post or the pole that holds up a street sign. Fortunately for him -- and, as it turned out, for Bosnia -- a visiting Czech coach saw his potential and recommended Dzeko to Teplice. There he was used as a target man and blossomed in a system that knew how to use him. Two years later, he was sold to Wolfsburg for €5 million.
To describe Dzeko as a target man, though, seems unfair, for he is rather more than that. Sir Alex Ferguson apparently didn't follow up initial interest in him because of his lack of pace, and it is true that, particularly from a standing start, he can seem sluggish. But Dzeko, for all his physical attributes, is technically accomplished and, when the mood is with him, is a fine finisher. He is a confidence player, it's true, and the fitful nature of his involvement at Manchester City, the impossibility of him stringing a series of games together, doesn't help him, but as his form in Germany, when he and Grafite inspired Wolfsburg to an improbable Bundesliga title in 2009, showed, he can be devastating.
In terms of playing style, Dzeko may be unusual for a Bosnian, but in other ways he is a typical child of Sarajevo. "I was 6 when the war started," he said. "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."
Football seemed a world away. "A lot of footballers start to play kicking a ball around in the street but for me that was impossible," he said. "But when the war finished I was much stronger, mentally. After the war I played with my friends in the streets, at school, then my father took me to Zeljeznicar." Their stadium lay on the front line and when the siege was finally lifted, the first thing players and officials had to do was to clear the pitch of mines.
Perhaps because of that background, Dzeko remains a remarkably humble figure. A Bosnian journalist told me how, driving back from an assignment Hoffenheim, he decided on a whim to visit Dzeko in Wolfsburg. Dzeko not only agreed to be interviewed but let the journalist stay in his apartment because a VW conference meant there wasn't a hotel room to be had in the city. I was once interviewing him when the Bosnian prime minister turned up to have his photograph taken with the squad before a crucial World Cup qualifier. Most players would have used that as an excuse to curtail the interview; Dzeko came back half an hour later, full of apologies.
And for all his occasional awkwardness, he is an effective player in a team that could be about to qualify for the World Cup for the first time. Having lost to Portugal in qualifying playoffs for both the last World Cup and Euro 2012, a group in which Greece and Slovakia are the two main rivals for qualification represents a real chance. Bosnia put eight past Liechtenstein and four past Latvia before Friday's highly creditable 0-0 draw at Greece.
Lithuania on Tuesday was never likely to prove much of a threat, but there was something highly impressive about the clinical way Bosnia won the game in a 15-minute spell before halftime. Vedad Ibisevic got the first, crashing in a finish after a superb run and slipped pass from Pjanic, before the Pjanic-Dzeko partnership took over. First Pjanic's angled pass found Dzeko, who finished cooly and then Dzeko, having taken the ball down on his chest, calmly found space before crossing for Pjanic -- a perfect illustration of his combination of strength and awareness.
It's that that makes Bosnia so dangerous; it will pass neatly through midfield, using Pjanic's guile and Zjezden Mismovic's languid intelligence and then suddenly Senad Lulic or Sejad Salihovic will sling in a cross for Dzeko and the whole angle and dynamic of the attack changes. Defend high against them and a team risks through-balls threaded into the space behind its defensive line; defend deep and it invites Dzeko to attack headers in goal-scoring range. His unorthodoxy gives Bosnia an additional attacking option and that might be enough to carry his country to Brazil.