The World Cup and the Path to Reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Written by Mary Utermohlen, Editorial Intern

He scored the only goal in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s last qualifying match, thereby securing their place at the World Cup. On Sunday, June 15th, he scored his team’s only goal against Argentina after coming in as a substitute in their opening match.

His name is Vedad Ibisevic, and he is the striker for both Stuttgart and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national team. Due in part to Ibisevic’s prowess, Bosnia and Herzegovina were playing in the World Cup for the first time as a unified nation, 20 years after the bloody civil war that tore the country apart and killed 100,000 civilians.

Many of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s players grew up outside of the country and away from the sectarian violence. Many were too young at the time to remember much of the war. But for Ibisevic, who was seven in 1992, the year the war began, the fear that he experienced and the horrifying images that he saw can never be entirely forgotten. One memory in particular stands out: in the early days of the war, most people believed the conflict would quickly pass. As a means of dealing with what they considered to be a temporary inconvenience, Bosniak men would hide in the mountains to avoid enemy patrols while their wives went to work. One morning, the patrols reached Ibisevic’s hometown of Vlasenica. Vedad’s mother woke him and his 3 year-old sister early in the morning, and lead them to a hole in the ground she had created for them in the bushes nearby. Vedad’s job was to keep his sister quiet while the patrol raided their home. Even at his young age, he understood the severity and perilousness of their situation.

Years later, after a number of lucky breaks and many years spent in various refugee camps, the Ibisevics arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. Vedad had dedicated himself over the years to soccer. It was a means of escape, a way to lose himself in something through extreme dedication. St. Louis was no different—Vedad managed to transform himself from an immigrant speaking little English into a successful student and soccer player. He received a scholarship to Saint Louis University. After only one season, Vedad signed with Paris Saint-Germain, and the rest, as they say, is history.

On October 15, 2013, Bosnia and Herzegovina played their last qualifying round against Lithuania for a spot at the 2014 World Cup. The teams were evenly matched at 0-0 until the 68th minute, when Ibisevic knocked the ball into the net with the help of an assist from Edin Dzeko. The stands on the Bosnian side went wild—smoke from flares set off by celebrating fans covered the field for the last few minutes of the game. The team was ecstatic on the plane ride back to Sarajevo, where 50,000 fans screaming chants of “You are the country’s pride” greeted them.

In some ways, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s qualifying win was their goal in and of itself. In just twenty short years, the tiny country of 3.5 million people has been able to pull itself out of the rubble to build a team capable enough to compete on the world stage. That feat would be a difficult one for any country, but it is especially difficult in a country where strong sectarian mindsets still exist. Arguably the team’s most impressive accomplishment is the harmony between its Muslim, Serb, and Croat players.

The delighted reactions of fans in the capital were overshadowed by footage of empty bars in Banja Luka, a majority Serb city, and stories of Croats stoning partying fans in the segregated city of Mostar. Clearly, the sectarian differences that prevailed during the war remain even as the country’s soccer stars overcome them.

The game against Argentina, while a loss, proved Bosnia and Herzegovina has what it takes to hold their own against a well-regarded national team. Of Argentina’s two goals, one was an own goal that bounced off of defender Sead Kolasinac after a free kick by Argentine star-player Lionel Messi. Had it not been for Kolasinac’s unfortunate timing, the game would have ended in a tie.

Bosnia and Herzegovina have been eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage, but the matches and the opportunity to play were still history-making. Perhaps, just as Vedad Ibisevic once used football as a way to heal old wounds, to deal with the past and take his mind off the present, Bosnia and Herzegovina can use the sport as a way to move forward. In a country where sectarian differences still exist, the World Cup can bring the country’s citizens together to an unprecedented extent. The games represent a way to create a new start.

The Bosnian national team sets a shining example for its country to follow. As Ibisevic said in an interview with Wright Thompson of ESPN, “I love my teammates. Just the fact that we get along perfectly. We have no problems with each other. We have all kinds of different people on the team and everyone gets along. I love that fact. It’s a proof for the country that it could work.”