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Despite its inescapable past, Bosnia-Herzegovina writes new chapter

Photo:

Fans, decked out in gear and emotion, flocked to a city square to watch a live broadcast of Bosnia-Herzegovina beating Lithuania 1-0 on Oct. 15, 2013, which resulted in qualification for this summer's World Cup in Brazil.

Note: This story originally ran in the April 28, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to Sports Illustrated, go here.

THE DASH TO FREEDOM

In the shadows next to the airfield, eight men huddled behind piles of snow: a soldier and seven soccer players. Or at least they had once been soccer players. This was February 1993, and league football hadn't been played in Sarajevo for well over a year. The siege of Sarajevo, which would last four years, had begun in April '92, one month after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia. The battle to control the new capital was the centerpiece of a civil war among ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) that would take nearly 100,000 lives. In these times there was no prospect of even a casual outdoor kick-around.

The men were physically fit; a sprint of a couple of hundred yards wouldn't present much of a problem. This dash, however, would be different. To flee the encircled city and reach free territory, the players would have to cross an airport tarmac harassed by snipers from the besieging army, which was fighting to establish a separate state for Bosnian Serbs. This was the most important run of the players' lives.

The organizer of the airport breakout was Fuad Muzurovic, manager of FK Sarajevo, one of the two largest professional soccer clubs in Bosnia. Muzurovic imagined taking his team on a world tour, playing a series of friendlies that would raise relief money for Bosnian orphans and war veterans and also spread the word about the deadly conflict. The outside world, he hoped, would be moved to take action. (As it was, foreign intervention was limited to NATO bombardment of Serbian troops and to the presence of UN peacekeeping forces outside Sarajevo and other smaller Bosnian cities.)

"This would be our way of fighting for Bosnia," says Mirza Varešanovic, a Bosniak who had been playing for FK Sarajevo at the time the Bosnian war began and who served on the front lines for more than a year before he was invited to join Muzurovic's tour. (By then the team had changed from an ethnically mixed squad to a side consisting mostly of Bosniaks, with a handful of Bosnian Croats.) "People thought maybe [we should have been fighting instead], but because we were well-known, the Bosnian president [Alija Izetbegovic] thought it was more useful for us to go abroad and play as the team of the besieged city," says Varešanovic, now 41. "We were some kind of Bosnian ambassadors."

Despite the suspension of league play, FK Sarajevo had continued to practice. "We trained in the basketball hall," Varešanovic recalls. "Every day going to and from training, we were under fire from snipers and cannons, but our love for the club and for football was bigger than the fear for our lives. This was our way of fighting."

To be ambassadors, though, they would first have to escape Sarajevo. Where the city wasn't blockaded by Serbian troops, it was sealed protectively by UN peacekeepers. The team was split into four groups of seven, each under the guidance of a member of the Bosnian special forces. They planned to break out group by group, on four consecutive nights.

"We knelt out of sight in front of the airport, and then the officer with us said, 'Run like hell!' " Muzurovic recalls of the evening he departed. "We ran with our bags on our backs, and there was no stopping for 200 yards."

Halfway across the runway, Muzurovic says, his group drew fire from Serbian snipers, but no one was struck. Evading the UN troops on the far end of the tarmac, who were tasked with preventing traffic into and out of Sarajevo, proved less dangerous. "They had a tank with a spotlight," says Muzurovic. "When we saw the light, we turned around; we made it appear as if we were running into the city from the free territory. We lay down, the UN forces put us in a transporter, and they took us [out of the city, where it appeared we'd come from]. That was the game you played."

Once in free territory, the team members headed northwest. They crossed the snowy Igman and Bjelašnica mountains by night, dodging Serbian patrols and hitching a ride in the back of a refrigerated meat truck. Eventually they arrived in Zagreb, Croatia, where they received accommodations and equipment from Miroslav Blaževic, a Bosnian who was then the president of Croatia's most successful club, Dinamo Zagreb.

In February 1993, Muzurovic's FK Sarajevo played the Croatian club Hajduk Split in the first game of a world tour that would eventually comprise 54 matches across 17 countries, from Austria to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. The players had an audience with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, and after beating Iran's national team 3-1 in Tehran, they met with President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"Congratulations on your victory," the Iranian leader told them. "This is your way of fighting. This is the best way to present your young state to the world."

The airport escape and FK Sarajevo's world tour would mark the birth of professional soccer in independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in October 2013 qualified for its first World Cup. Bosnians have played for soccer's premier trophy before, as members of the Yugoslav national team. But for the members of this side, getting to Brazil representing their own country, a tiny nation (pop. 3.9 million) still recovering from a civil war that ended less than two decades ago, is a far more resounding achievement.

THE ETERNAL FLAME AND THE TRUCK BATTERY

Wander through Sarajevo today—19 years after the Bosnian conflict was ended by the U.S.-brokered- Dayton Accords—and it's impossible to avoid reminders of the city's past. The streets are pocked with so-called Sarajevo roses, small craters left by mortars fired during the siege and since filled with red resin. At the western edge of the old city center, homeless people warm themselves by the Eternal Flame, a small bowl of stone-ringed fire that was constructed to commemorate the dead of World War II, although the decades that followed have added to its burden of remembrance.

In The Bridge on the Drina, the Nobel Prize--winning novelist Ivo Andric notes that for a couple of generations, Sarajevo's three ethnic -factions—Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs—will get along. But whenever there is a moment of crisis, each group rallies behind its own ethnic banner.

That was decidedly not the case last October, when tens of thousands of fans of all ethnicities took to the streets of Sarajevo to celebrate Bosnia's qualification for World Cup 2014 under the flag that has represented the country since shortly after the end of the war: a yellow triangle and white stars on a blue background. There, general delight suggested that something unexpected and beautiful had occurred, and it hinted at a possible future unity. It was a victory for Bosnians of all ethnicities, for those born and raised at home and those of the Bosnian diaspora.

In fact, the Bosnia squad of 2014 is a team of the diaspora. Midfielders Miralem Pjanic and Zvjezdan Misimovic grew up in Luxembourg and Germany, respectively. Forward Vedad Ibiševic played college soccer in the U.S., at Saint Louis University. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic's family fled to Germany in 1992, when he was four, and then moved to Canada. Holding midfielder Haris Medunjamin escaped with his mother from Sarajevo to the Netherlands when he was seven; his father stayed behind and was killed in the war. But the team's heart is striker Edin Džeko, a modern ambassador who is very much a son of Sarajevo, having lived in the city throughout the siege.

Džeko is the highest-profile player in the team's history, a bustling center forward who helped Wolfsburg win the German Bundesliga title in 2009 -before moving to Manchester City, where he helped win the Premier League in '12. He was 6 when the war began. His parents' house in Sarajevo was destroyed, so he went to live nearby with his grandparents. The whole family—a dozen people, sometimes more—shared an area of around 400 square feet.

During the siege Džeko was among a group of teenagers who traveled to futsal tournaments in school gyms under the care of coaches such as Hajro Bojadžic. "We'd walk for many kilometers under cover to avoid snipers," said Bojadžic before his death in 2012. "It was a very dangerous time, but even though the boys were always hungry, they used to play with huge smiles on their faces."

Džeko's mother, Belma, hated letting her son out of her sight, and she recalls how close he once came to death. "Every time Edin went out, I felt afraid," she says, "but I couldn't forbid him to play—he was just a kid. There was one time when he begged to go out, but I said no. A few minutes later a bomb hit the playground. A lot of kids died that day."

The Bosnian journalist Nedim Hasic remembers how even watching a soccer game on TV during the siege could be a comfort. "Maybe a week before the World Cup started in 1994, I was walking through the city and saw an abandoned truck," he says. "It was all smashed up, so you knew it couldn't be driven, but the battery was still there. I took [it] back to my apartment, and my uncle wired it up to provide power for the TV so we could watch the games from the U.S. Dozens of people came around each day to watch."

Photo:

Edin Dzeko (11) and Vedad Ibisevic (9) will lead Bosnia-Herzegovina's attack this summer at the World Cup in Brazil.

THE KERNEL OF TRUTH

In September 2009, 14 years after the civil war ended, the Bosnian national team emerged from the home dressing room in Zenica for the kickoff of a World Cup qualifier against Turkey. Maybe a minute passed before the hubbub died down and a murmur swept through the stands: Where is he? Where is ´Ciro?

At last ´Ciro, as Miroslav Blaževic is widely known, emerged, pausing for a moment at the tunnel's entrance to make sure he was seen. (Given his white jacket over a black shirt, who could miss him?) This was classic ´Ciro. The frenzied atmosphere jumped another notch as Blaževic, then 74, walked the field's perimeter, clapping and waving to the crowd's chants of "´Ciro! ´Ciro!" In the distance, from somewhere near the center of Zenica, fireworks shot into the sky.

A Bosnian Croat who coached 22 club teams and five national sides over 46 years, Blaževic is a demagogue, a showman and a conjuror, somebody who creates outlandish illusions (such as Bosnia's qualifying for the World Cup) and makes others believe in them. The Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon writes of the so-called "myth mills" of Sarajevo, which generate stories from kernels of truth and embellish them until they become something fantastical. Though Blaževic is from Travnik, an hour northwest of the capital, he follows the Sarajevo template: If the world is dull or otherwise not to your liking, create a new one. As a coach, that meant convincing his players that he was the best leader in the world, that every lowly opponent was as dangerous as mighty Brazil.

Slaven Bilic, a defender on the Croatian national team that Blaževic led to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup, spent most of his time under ´Ciro thinking, What the f--- are you talking about? Eventually he accepted that Blaževic invented his own world and made others populate it.

When Blaževic took over the Bosnia side, one year before the match with Turkey, the team could hardly have been in a worse state. ´Ciro's predecessor, Meho Kodro, had been sacked for refusing to play what he saw as a pointless friendly against Iran. As 19 internationals went on strike in support of Kodro, the Bosnian interim coach, Denijal Piric, having a game against Azerbaijan to play, drove around Sarajevo asking any player he knew if he fancied a game.

As with all of Bosnia's institutions, the soccer federation was also riven by endless politicking between the three ethnic factions. "When Kodro was sacked, I thought everything would go down," says Džeko. Instead it was the beginning of an astonishing rise, in which Džeko has played a central part. Blaževic glossed over the issue of ethnicity, got his players to believe they could compete with the best in the world and created unity in the home stands.

"I am on a mission to bring peace among the people," Blaževic told reporters before the Turkey game. "We are too small a country to be -divided. On my team, everybody likes each other, and I'm their dad. I am very proud that I can bring the people together in a way politicians cannot. But my mission depends on results." Each victory, he insisted, was "a few steps forward in the unification of the country."

In fact, nowhere else have Bosnians of all backgrounds come -together as enthusiastically as they have in Bilino Polje, the ram-shackle stadium in Zenica where, during that game against Turkey, Bosnian Serbs mingled happily in the crowd with Bosnian Muslim women in head scarves. Zenica is in a predominantly Muslim area, but when the home team's goalkeeper that evening, the Bosnian Serb Nemanja Supic, made several saves, his name was sung unanimously. "When they are chanting Nemanja," Blaževic said, "that's my biggest victory."

His players drew Turkey 1--1 that evening, and they made it as far as a home-and-away playoff for qualification at World Cup 2010 before the illusion evaporated. Bosnia was unlucky to draw Portugal, and lost both legs 1-0. Blaževic was dismissed.

THE SWEEPER AND THE COACH

If ´Ciro's charisma hot-wired the car, it would take a cooler head and more pragmatic tactician to pilot it successfully. That man has been Safet Sušic, Blaževic's replacement, who led Bosnia to an 8-1-1 record in European qualifying for World Cup 2014, with a goal differential of +24, topped only by those of Germany, the Netherlands and England. As a player, Sušic had been a calm and elegant midfielder for the Yugoslav side that played in World Cup 1990 in Italy, where he scored the opening goal in a win over the Arab Emirates. It was the last World Cup before the Balkan country's violent fragmentation.

Yugoslavia's coach back then was Ivica Osim. He is 72 now, his eyes a pale blue, his hair sparse, an -elder statesman of the game who was weakened by a stroke in 2007. (He was watching an English Premier League game when he lost -consciousness; his wife says the first thing he did when he came to was ask about the final score.) When FIFA threatened to expel Bosnia in '11 on grounds that the complicated structure of its soccer federation—which then rotated the presidency among the country's three ethnicities—didn't meet regulations, it was Osim who headed the committee that resolved the issue by settling on a single president.

At that 1990 World Cup, Yugoslavia beat Spain in the round of 16 to set up a quarterfinal against Diego Maradona's Argentina. Despite losing a defender to a red card after half an hour, Osim and Sušic's team held on for penalties. They lost. This still nags at Osim as he lies awake at night. What if Yugoslavia had won? What if his team had gone on to the final? "Maybe I'm optimistic," he's said, "but in my private illusion I wonder what would have happened in the country? Maybe there would have been no war if we'd won the World Cup."

That was the last time Bosnians played in a World Cup.

THE DRAGONS' FIRE

Fuad Muzurovic is 68 now, his face creased and his hair all white, save for his black and bushy eyebrows. He is every inch a football man, seemingly unable to process any experience without relating it to the game to which he has devoted his life. I meet him in a grill beside Sarajevo's Koševo Stadium, which hosted the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics and is used for major club soccer games. The stadium itself is a reminder of the war, flanked by training pitches that have been converted into graveyards—one field dotted with the plain white headstones of Bosniaks, another with the ornate crosses and sculptures of Catholic Croats.

"You see every day 500 small kids playing in the dust, without water, without anything," Muzurovic says. "Sarajevo youth teams are the best in Bosnia, but they practice in and have their matches in the mud. Can you imagine how good we'd be if we had a good pitch and warm water? None of this generation can head the ball in the right way—at dusk you can't see anything, so they close their eyes and head the ball the wrong way."

The war still lurks in the background of any discussion about Bosnia, soccer-related and otherwise. "For four years I lived in fear of losing my life, of a member of my family or a friend being killed," says Džeko. "But we have to look to the future. I'm trying not to think about war."

Teammates echo this need to move on, yet war and football are the two things the wider world knows about Bosnia. "We're trying to [show] what a good country Bosnia is, and the more success we have, [the more] it will open people's eyes," says Begovic. "[Winning] gives joy to the [Bosnian] people and maybe changes their minds about certain things. It gives them something to be proud of, which maybe they haven't had for a long time."

That enthusiasm cuts both ways, however, and the importance of football has brought its own problems. Following the euphoria over improvement under Blaževic—the sense that the national team brought everybody together—there was the pressure to make the next World Cup.

After surging through their early qualifiers for Brazil, the Dragons (Zmajevi in Bosnian) suffered a setback at home against Slovakia in September, losing 1--0. In order to secure automatic entry and avoid another play-in against the likes of Portugal, they had to win on the road against formidable Lithuania. "Failing to qualify would make so many people feel so desperate, they would simply give up on Bosnia," Hemon, the novelist, said before that game. "It's precarious. If they [lose], they will provide more evidence for Bosnia's inherent inferiority, just as they are currently providing hope for a better future."

For more than an hour Bosnia toiled, but midway through the second half Ibiševic, the forward who had played college soccer at Saint Louis, struck, and the passage to Brazil was secure. It was the fulfillment of the dream that Muzurovic had put in motion when he set off with his touring side two decades ago.

Back in those days, in November 1995, Muzurovic led his unofficial national team to play a friendly against Albania in Tirana. Initially only eight players agreed to participate, and it seemed as if the coaches might have to join them on the pitch. But by coaxing players out of retirement, the coaches put a team together, buying kits in a Zagreb sports shop on their way to the airport. There was snow on the ground then, as there was when Muzurovic shepherded his players across the frozen airfield in Sarajevo in February '93. There was snow in Sarajevo on the day the Dayton Accords- were signed in '95, ending the Bosnian war. And it was snowing in the capital four months ago when the draw for the 2014 World Cup was made in Brazil.

Bosnia's first game will be on June 15 in Rio de Janeiro, at the Maracanã—the world's most iconic soccer stage—against Argentina, the team that eliminated Yugoslavia the last time it encompassed Bosnia. The past is inescapable.

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