St. Louis University soccer player Robert Kristo’s mother knew it was time to leave their home in Travnik, Bosnia, when a hand grenade went off near the front of their house and sent shattered glass into the crib where her six-month-old son slept. She picked him up, headed to a relative’s house nearby and soon after moved to Split, Croatia.
Teammate Adnan Gabeljic’s family didn’t wait for that. Living in the town of Srebrenica, which a few years later would be the site of a massacre of 8,000 — mostly men and boys. Gabeljic’s family saw the war coming and fled to Zagreb, Croatia, where Gabeljic was born. The family then moved to Stuttgart, Germany.
“They thought it would be better for the kids if they came here, even if it was not better for them,” Gabeljic said. “That’s what the decision came back to.”
“My parents’ best bet was to get out,” Kristo said. “They got a chance and took it.”
The road has been long and at times harrowing for Kristo and Gabeljic even if most of it happened before they could remember it. (Both had uncles die in the war in Bosnia.) Gabeljic’s family moved to St. Louis from Germany in 1999 when he was 7, Kristo’s from Croatia in 1998 — “Sept. 3, 1998,” Kristo said. “I never forget that date” — when he was 5, but they have ended up in what for them is an ideal spot: they’re the leading scorers on a top-flight soccer team that will be in the discussion about the NCAA championship this season.
One preseason ranking has the Billikens 10th in the nation; the national coaches poll that came out Tuesday has them 15th.
The two are the most recent in a line of Bosnian players who came to St. Louis during the war, a line highlighted by Vedad Ibisevic, who went to Roosevelt High and played one year at SLU before getting an offer to play professionally in Europe. He also plays for the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team, which is closing in on its first spot in the World Cup and faces the United States in a friendly match today (1:30 p.m., ESPN2).
Kristo, a junior from Parkway North High who, after being called Robbie is now going by Robert at the request of his father — who didn’t like the way Robbie looked on the various awards his son was receiving — led SLU with 11 goals last season and was a third-team All-American.
Gabeljic, a senior from Mehlville High majoring in civil engineering with a GPA just a tick under 4.0, was tied for second with Kingsley Bryce with seven goals (even though Gabeljic started only one game) as SLU had one of its best offensive seasons ever.
“Both have improved,” SLU coach Mike McGinty said. “It’s not just that the team is better, because if the team is playing well they’ll get multiple looks rather than one or two, but both have gotten better at figuring out how they’re going to score. They’re clearly better than they were when they started. A lot of that is their hard work coupled with other good players behind them.”
Gabeljic and Kristo have made trips home to the former Yugoslavia. Gabeljic went to Sarajevo and spent time training with a team in Bosnia’s domestic league.
“It’s fine now,” he said. “It’s not like here, but it’s recovered a lot. It’s a lot better, but there are still a lot of war effects. The city’s torn up a bit. Srebrenica’s even more bizarre. Very few of us Bosnians live there.”
“When I go back, I feel honored,” Kristo said. “I’m so happy that my parents (came to America). It was all for me. They knew they wanted a better lifestyle for me. When I go back there, it’s not a third-world country, it’s OK, but it’s a hard life. It’s not easy to live there. There are people at 13 staring to work there. They don’t go to school. The opportunity I have, I’m lucky I got one. … I don’t want to imagine what my mom had to go through for me. Even when you go back, they don’t like to talk about it.”
The Billikens start practice today and have a home exhibition match against Akron on Aug. 24 before their season-opener on Aug. 30 against Oral Roberts. SLU went 16-5 last season and made the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2009, but their season ended abruptly when the eighth-seeded Billikens were upset by Fairleigh Dickinson 2-1 in overtime in the second round of the NCAAs. With an older and wiser team, expectations are high for this season.
“That team hadn’t experienced tournament play, especially the NCAA Tournament,” said Kristo, who was slowed by an ankle injury suffered in the Atlantic 10 championship game. “So when that hit us, we didn’t realize what we were doing. We were sophomores mostly, with a couple upperclassmen and we didn’t understand what it was like and we got a reality check. Most of the team, especially me, were looking ahead — “we’ve got North Carolina, we’ve got Indiana, that’s going to be a good year for us” — and Fairleigh Dickinson comes through and sweeps us right off our feet.
“So this year, I feel like we understand it more. We’re a little more mature. We understand what we’ve got to do. We know what it takes, where we have to be to become one of best teams in the nation.”
Kristo played with Orlando City, a third-division club, this summer and feels he improved his movement on the field. Gabeljic, who’s 6 feet 3, worked on his play in the air to take advantage of his height on set pieces. (Just one of his seven goals last season was on a header.)
“There’s a lot of potential there,” Gabeljic said of Kristo. “He’s one of the better players I’ve seen with holding the ball up, scoring on headers and crosses. He can do most things in the game. He’s a tremendous talent. It’s good to play with him.”
“That guy is one of the fastest guys in the NCAA,” Kristo said of Gabeljic. “I think he is the fastest guy in NCAA soccer. He’s quick. He’d come on at halftime with so much energy, he’d blow by people. It was easy for him. He’s a super sub is what he is and he’s working hard enough to earn a spot on the starting roster.”
It took the horrors of war to bring Kristo and Gabeljic first to St. Louis and eventually to SLU. Now they could bring SLU to one of its best seasons in a decade. The two share a bond, even if it’s one they’d rather not have.
“We kind of understand what it’s like,” Kristo said. “It’s nice to be around people that understand your past and feel the same way.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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