Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Vedad Ibisevic at Monday night’s “friendly” match against Argentina at Busch Stadium. In 1945, George Orwell described sport—particularly when played at the international level—as “mimic warfare.”When he wrote that, it was about a Russian soccer team playing in England after World War II, when the games were testy.
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s residents and refugees know plenty about war. Yet in St. Louis on Monday night, a World Cup-level “friendly” match at Busch Stadium between the national teams of Bosnia and Argentina didn’t mimic anything other than a celebration and an exhibition of top-flight soccer. The prevailing emotions of the gatherings and game were in praise of survival, both in life and in sports.
The tens of thousands of Bosnians who fled their homeland for St. Louis survived war, repression, and economic turmoil to surface with a better chance at life. The Bosnian soccer team also beat the odds, qualifying for the once-every-four years World Cup for the first time in the team’s brief history.
During Monday night’s game, Bosnia had several chances to score early, the best of which was by Vedad Ibisevic at the 10-minute mark. Bill McDermott, who announced the game for KMOX, was surprised that Ibisevic, who got the ball just in front of the net, nudged it just a foot wide of the goal. “That first one that Vedad missed in close, you need to get a picture of that,” McDermott said, “because that never, ever, happens, especially when he’s in there alone.”
Ibisevic, the Bosnian team’s second leading goal scorer, moved to St. Louis when he was 15. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and last played here when he was a freshman at Saint Louis University. His parents and sister live in South County. Ibisevic now plays for Stuttgart, in Germany’s Bundesliga he’s proven to be a prolific goal scorer, netting more than 60 goals in his German career. He may not be as flamboyant or creative as Argentina’s star, Lionel Messi, but he is fundamental to Bosnia’s chances of advancing next year in the World Cup.
Messi, thought by many to be one of the top players in the world, sat out Monday’s game with hamstring problems. “Messi has that quick explosion of speed, the acceleration that he alone provides. That’s why, with a torn hamstring, they need to be wary of that,” said McDermott. “They’re taking no chances whatsoever, neither Argentina or Barcelona.”
Even without Messi, Argentina showed why it’s long been considered soccer royalty. Sergio Aguero scored two goals, the first from a put-back of a rebound and the second on a one-time volley from a long, looping pass from Maxi Rodriquez. McDermott, however, credited midfielder and team captain Javier Mascherano as Argentina’s key player. “The guy who really pulls the strings for them is Mascherano,” he said. “He lies deep and then chips these balls over the top of people. He’s known as a hard tackler, but he showed in this game that he can spray the ball around. That made the difference—it kept Bosnia-Herzegovina off balance just enough.”
Eventually, Argentina won by a score of 2-0. But it was little more than a footnote to a historic chapter for Bosnia. After all, the loss was at the hands (and feet) of a team that came into the game as one of the favorites to win the World Cup: The team is just behind Brazil, at 5-1 odds on American gambling sites and 9-2 on English betting sites. Bosnia’s odds are about 100-1.
For Ibisevic, Monday’s game offered a chance to return to St. Louis and see his family and friends. “It’s always fun to see old friends,” he said.
Last month, in Sarajevo, it was Ibisevic who scored the only goal of the match against Lithuania that qualified Bosnia for its first World Cup finals. “It was crazy—not only for me, but for everybody,” he said. “It was an amazing feeling to know that we made these people happy that lived in Bosnia and had lived through all they did through all these years.”
Today, Ibisevic says he keeps in touch with several former teammates from his team at Roosevelt High School. He still remembers his first soccer practice there, when tryouts consisted of a three-on-three game, with rocks used to mark the goals. “It was pretty shocking for me,” he recalled. “But even then, I did not give up my dream. I’m proud that I continued.”
Ibisevic went on to fame and fortune, but the rough ride continues at Roosevelt. This year’s soccer team managed a schedule of fewer than 10 games, less than half of most area high schools. In the first round of the Class 2 state playoffs, only five Roosevelt players showed up in time for the game. After the game was called as a forfeit, three other players showed up late—still three short of the standard 11 starters. Nonetheless, many Bosnians in St. Louis, especially those with school-age children, continue the trek to South County, where high-school soccer teams at Affton, Bayless, and Mehlville have benefited from their skills.
Many Bosnians also made the trek to Busch Stadium on Monday night, regardless of high ticket prices and the fact that the game was played on a weekday night. (Attendance ended up being below 30,000, despite coupons and price cuts in the weeks before the game.)
Afterward, a crowd spilled out the door at Vivid Café, in the shadow of Bevo Mill’s landmark windmil. In a previous life, Vivid was a Quik Trip; now, its rebirth as a Bosnian club is complete. It’s emblematic of the refugee knack for starting over and changing things for the better. The cafe’s website even states: “Unless you fled the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the war-torn 1909s, be forewarned: You will turn heads walking into the Vivid Café. St. Louis is said to be home to the second largest Bosnian population of any city outside Sarajevo, and it’s not often you get to feel like an interloper in your own city—so the exoticism of the Vivid Cafe should come as a welcome experience.”
Despite the loss—or maybe because the game was played—loud music played at Vivid as the crowd drank and danced. “Business has picked up all weekend,” said a bartender. “It’s the people in from out of town.
“It’s all about the game.”
Indeed. And the crowds, both at Busch Stadium and Vivid, were mimicking a good time.
SOURCE: St. Louis Mag
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