Inside the locker room of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national soccer team, you might be surprised to hear languages besides the country’s three official ones: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.
But among the players the lingua franca is soccer, and they’ve been brought together by one common cause: the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The talented group assembled by the Balkan state has qualified for its first World Cup in history. The team that will take the field in Brazil features a collection of players once scattered across the Bosnian diaspora who were forced to seek refuge after the outbreak of the Bosnian war.
One of the team’s biggest stars is one of those transplanted Bosnians. Asmir Begovic, who is fluent in German, English and Bosnian, is the starting keeper for Stoke City FC in the English Premier League. He escaped from Bosnia with his family at the age of four, just before violence erupted in the country.
Forced to make a quick decision to leave, Begovic’s family fled to Germany and eventually settled in Canada.
“The reality is we could have easily lost our lives,” says Begovic, now 26.
“Bosnia was under siege, under fire for a long time and a lot of people lost their lives. I know family members who lost relatives.”
Ethnic tensions erupt
Sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions came to a head in 1992, exploding along fault lines between Muslim Bosnians, Orthodox Serbians and Catholic Croats. Cities were reduced to rubble, nearly 100,000 lives were lost, 2.2 million people were displaced and numerous other atrocities were committed by the time the war was over in 1995.
Begovic represented Canada on the national stage until a trip to war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2009 for his grandfather’s funeral opened his eyes to the horrors that he had been sheltered from abroad.
“That was my first time back and some things do shock you. When you see bullet holes in building walls from the war, it can be shocking," he says.
“As I’ve gotten older you really come to understand what happened, and the more people you speak to, the more stories you hear, and some of the stuff that went on is beyond belief and truly hard to imagine having to live through.”
The prospect of giving his family and his country something to cheer for helped sway the young Bosnian to change allegiances.
“[It] confirmed to me that if the opportunity presented itself, I know where my heart really was in terms of which national team I should represent -- [it] was where all my family was," he says.
“Bosnia hasn't had much to cheer about over the last few years, so it has been nice to put a smile on people's face and to put the country on the map.”
Growing up abroad
This was a difficult decision for Begovic, who spent a significant chunk of his adolescence in hockey-mad Edmonton after moving there at the age of 10.
Many of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s players grew up abroad. But Begovic believes that, as part of the first generation to stand on their feet after the war, the team feels a duty to bring some positivity to the country.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. Guys grew up in different countries in different ways, but we all believe in the same [goal] and that really keeps us focused on what we want to achieve,” he says.
Growing up halfway across the world from his homeland, Begovic says it was a struggle to maintain Bosnian culture. However, his family only spoke Bosnian at home and tried to keep traditions by celebrating Bosnian holidays and eating customary cuisine.
With aspirations to become a professional soccer player, Begovic found himself in a country where soccer wasn't front-page news.
Begovic adapted, dabbling in other sports and becoming a hockey fan, but he never lost his love for the beautiful game.
“I think it was just natural, he says.
“I just kind of picked up a pair gloves and picked up a ball and I always wanted to be in goal since I was three or four years old.”
With the support of his father, a former professional goalkeeper in Bosnia, the teen never lacked training despite being uprooted from his homeland.
“I’m really thankful my dad knew what he was talking about. He used to play the game, so he was my best coach growing up,” Begovic says.
At 16, Begovic signed a contract with Portsmouth FC of the EPL, following a tryout with the club.
The 6-foot-6, 183-pound goalkeeper has found success in England’s top league, spending his last nine seasons there. This year he has posted six clean sheets in 18 games for Stoke City, good for 12th among his peers.
Facing stiff competition in Brazil
Bosnia and Herzegovina will be hoping that Begovic can provide a solid foundation from the back end for the aggressive attacking squad that will take to the pitch at the World Cup in Brazil.
The team faces stiff competition in Group F from Argentina, Iran and Nigeria, but Begovic is optimistic about his country’s prospects.
“We’ve shown the past couple of years we can play with a lot of teams,” he says. “If you can get to the knockout stages, anything can happen in a one-off game.”
Ultimately, Begovic hopes that the team’s World Cup bid can provide some catharsis to a nation still scarred from the horrors of the Bosnian war.
“I know it is just a football World Cup in some people's eyes, but it’s something that the country is back to trying to do after many, many years,” he says.
“I think it makes everybody proud to be Bosnian, to see Bosnia... stand up on our own two feet and accomplish something. I think it is a huge achievement."