As a teenager Vedad Ibisevic left Bosnia after its bloody war, seeking a better life. He and his family headed first to Switzerland before settling in St. Louis.
Like many of the Bosnian refugees who settled elsewhere, they dreamed of going back some day. But it would have been hard to imagine the homecoming trip Ibisevic made in October, when he went home a hero.
Times are tough in Bosnia-Herzegovina as it rebuilds from the devastating war that killed more than 100,000 and laid waste to the capital of Sarajevo. But the nation experienced a shining moment of its 21-year existence on Oct. 16, when its soccer team qualified for the World Cup for the first time.
And it was Ibisevic who got them there. In a game against Lithuania that Bosnia-Herzegovina had to win to avoid going into an extra set of games to qualify, with the score at 0-0 in the 68th minute, Ibisevic found himself surprisingly free in front of the Lithuanian goal. A crossing pass came into the box, Ibisevic stuck out his right foot to redirect it into the goal from about 5 yards out, and bedlam ensued. The team held on for the final 22 minutes to win 1-0 and set off a massive celebration in the streets of Sarajevo.
The team returned to Sarajevo from Lithuania after the game and was greeted by tens of thousands of Bosnians still celebrating the achievement in the wee hours of the morning. The city, which had seen so much violence and bloodshed, once again was rocked, this time with fireworks and flares as part of a joyous event.
“There were a whole bunch of people celebrating, singing,” Ibisevic said by phone from his home in Stuttgart, Germany. “You could tell people don’t have that much possibility to celebrate, to be happy. There were a whole bunch of emotions there. In the main street in Sarajevo, where we went, we were on a balcony and there were 50,000 people or more in streets, celebrating, cheering. This was all happening at 2 or 3 a.m. in morning, so it tells you a lot how people feel about it.”
It’s been quite a journey for Ibisevic, part of the vast exodus of Bosnian refugees who landed in St. Louis. He went to Roosevelt High and played soccer for a year at St. Louis University before returning to Europe to start a career as a professional soccer player. Ibisevic will make another homecoming this week when he returns to St. Louis for a friendly match between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Argentina on Monday at Busch Stadium.
“There was a whole lot of mixed feelings in that moment,” Ibisevic said. “Especially when we came back to Bosnia and saw what was going on.”
What was going on was the biggest celebration the country had seen in maybe ever.
“For me, there were two things,” he said. “First, the sports side, as a professional football player dreaming of playing in World Cup one day. To have achieved that is definitely a great feeling. The second part of that story is the whole situation with the war in Bosnia and me living through all that. Knowing what was going on, how people are still having difficulty living in Bosnia, having the possibility to make all these people happy, to make my family proud, it’s a feeling that’s very difficult to describe with words.”
While Yugoslavia had a string of soccer success, it had mixed results after the country broke up its components. Croatia reached the World Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2006, finishing third in ’98. Slovenia made it in 2002 and 2010, and Serbia went in 2006 and 2010. (In 2006, Serbia played with Montenegro, which now fields its own team.) Bosnia-Herzegovina, meanwhile, had not qualified for either the European finals or the World Cup, though it had come close. The country’s economy may be in shambles and ethnic divisions still pronounced, but this was something everyone could celebrate.
“Most of us that play in the national team, we all have connections to Bosnia,” he said. “We have relatives, and each and every one has some hard times. It really makes us proud to have achieved this historical event.”
Ibisevic’s goal-scoring skill was evident at Roosevelt, where he was a second-team All-Metro selection, a first for a Public High League player, and at SLU. He had 18 goals and four assists in 22 games as a freshman at SLU in 2003 when the Billikens reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, and hopes were high for what the program could do in the next three years. But Ibisevic had been called in to a Bosnian youth team, and his play there made job offers in Europe inevitable. It was just a matter of when. Paris St.-Germain, one of the top clubs in France, offered him a contract, and there was pretty much no way to turn it down. He left SLU after his freshman season, and the effects on the program were huge. SLU failed to even make the NCAA tournament the next two seasons.
“It was a lot of risk there,” he said. “I was a young man, all I had on my mind was soccer. I had to take that risk. I was lucky to have succeeded. It’s not easy for young players to decide against going pro. If somebody has that possibility, it’s always better to start earlier. … The first couple of years of my professional career weren’t easy. It made me better as a person, better as a player. I learned on my way up.”
Ibisevic signed with PSG, but he was loaned to another French club, Dijon, and eventually signed with them. He moved to Germany in 2006, signing first with Alemannia Aachen and then moving to 1899 Hoffenheim. He got off to a blazing start with Hoffenheim in 2008, with 18 goals and seven assists in 17 games, and he was named the Bundesliga’s player of the month for October. But in a training match during Germany’s winter break, he tore knee ligaments, ending his season. Before the 2012 season, he moved to Stuttgart, which is in eighth place in the Bundesliga now. Ibisevic leads the team in goals with eight, which is the second most in the league, behind Robert Lewandowski at Borussia Dortmund with nine. He scored eight goals in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s qualifying matches.
And now he’s coming home, to a different place. He’s been back here several times to see his family. He realizes he’s come a long way from the bumpy field at Roosevelt High to the manicured playing fields of Europe, though he appreciates the time playing here and how it helped him during a difficult time, as he acclimated to a new world.
St. Louis also affords him a break. In Germany, Ibisevic is a soccer-playing celebrity. Not so here.
“When I come back to St. Louis, I see the same people, the same friends I had when I left,” he said. “My close friends, my family, hasn’t really changed that much. I enjoy my time here as I did before. When I come back to St. Louis, I don’t feel like a celebrity. People know me here (in Germany) as a soccer player, as a Bundesliga professional. It’s normal that they act differently toward me. It’s why I do like coming back to St. Louis from time to time.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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