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The Year of Bosnian Dragon

Kenan Trebincevic (Authors courtesy photo)

Kenan Trebincevic (Photo credit courtesy to Eldin Trebincevic)

Bosnian soccer (Photo by Hajat Avdovic - Webpublicapress)

Bosnian National Team fans from USA (Photo by Hajat Avdovic - Webpublicapress)

Bosnian National Team players (Photo by Hajat Avdovic - Webpublicapress)

Kenan Trebincevic (Authors courtesy photo)

Kenan Trebincevic (Author’s courtesy photo)

By Kenan Trebincevic (Specially for Webpublicapress) – “Congratulations on qualifying for the World Cup bro, that must feel amazing for you guys,” my American-born friend Bob shouted over the phone.

He knew how excited I was that the  Bosnian national soccer team – the Dragons –  was one of the 32 teams vying in the world cup tournament in Brazil this month. In over twenty years, this was my first association with Bosnia that wasn’t war, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

When I was 12, my family were victims of the Orthodox Christian Serbs’ campaign to erase Bosnian Muslims like us. I was sitting on my living room floor, flipping through my 1990 World Cup sticker album, looking at the American squad led by Alexi Lalas. Just then, my karate coach banged on the door with an AK-47 shouting, “you have one hour to leave or be killed.”  He took my father, once a well known sports trainer, to a concentration camp, along with my older brother Eldin. We miraculously survived and fled to the United States in 1993.

So I was moved to read that the Bosnian soccer team’s prolific forward, Vedad Ibisevic, was a Muslim refugee like me. His

Bosnian soccer (Photo by Hajat Avdovic - Webpublicapress)

Bosnian soccer emblems (Photo by Hajat Avdovic – Webpublicapress)

family escaped to America, just like mine. On ESPN.COM I learned that Ibisevic’s mother hid him in a ditch to escape paramilitaries in the woods, and that his grandfather was axed to death by his neighbor. I felt even more proud of his triumph last October, when Ibisevic scored the game winning goal against Lithuania. That secured Bosnia the first World Cup entry since its independence in 1992 from the former Yugoslavia, our country that no longer exists.

The last time Bosnians played in the World Cup was in 1990, though they lost to Argentina in quarterfinals as members of Yugoslavian National Team.  I watched the game on TV in my hometown when I was ten. I could hear loud chanting echoing from the apartments as my neighbors huddled around televisions and radios shouting “Yu-go-sla-via”. That was the last time ethnic Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs played together before the bloody break-up of my homeland that resulted in 300,000 dead.

Back then I collected World Cup soccer cards of my old local heroes. I’d stick them into an album, trading with my friends,

Bosnian National Team fans from USA  (Photo by Hajat Avdovic - Webpublicapress)

Bosnian National Team fans from USA (Photo by Hajat Avdovic – Webpublicapress)

Dalibor and Velibor, for the players I was missing. Growing up in the same Brcko apartment building, we stenciled our white T-shirts with numbers and pretended to be  professional players. I’d shout out imaginary game-time commentaries as I dribbled a soccer ball down our paved parking lot aiming for the goal posts we’d mark with two red bricks. Someday I’d dreamt I’d be a great athlete my peers would look up to. We played till dusk, until we couldn’t see anymore.  I was confused when my teammates all turned on me because of my religion.

While my city became occupied by enemy soldiers and paramilitaries, I’d sneak outside, in-between the fighting,  to kick my lucky soccer ball against the wall by myself-since my old Serb friends stopped picking me for their games.  I’d watch them play until a mortar landing nearby would scatter us, forcing us all to run indoors.  Soccer was my way of surviving that horrible year I feared my family would be wiped out.

Bosnian National Team players  (Photo by Hajat Avdovic - Webpublicapress)

Bosnian National Team players (Photo by Hajat Avdovic – Webpublicapress)

Bosnia, a tiny nation of 3.9 million, is still recovering from the genocide two decades ago. For Bosniaks like myself, qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil offers light amid my country’s dark past. Now, as a 33 year -old physical therapist and proud American citizen living in Queens, NY,  I’m still as sports obsessed as the rest of my diaspora. My coworkers are convinced that I take soccer too seriously, to an unhealthy level. “Kenan is yelling at the laptop in the back office. It’s only a game, “ my coworker said. Few American friends understand my over-identification with the Brazil bound squad.

Most of the Bosnian team grew up as refugees, splattered around the globe like I was. Some lost fathers fighting, others survived concentration camps like my dad and older brother did. These young humble players, shadowed by their own Balkan ghosts, are now Bosnia’s biggest ambassadors. They’ve fought through years of political chaos between three ethnic factions within the soccer federation. They seem to be the only  Bosnian institution that achieved something positive since the war ended in 1995. They have put Bosnia back on the map, not as war-ravaged, still heavily segregated nationalistic country, but as a breeding ground of winners.

The squad of 23 men is mostly Bosniak, with a few Serbs and Croats, which some fantasize unifies my old country during

Kenan Trebincevic (Photo credit courtesy to Eldin Trebincevic)

Trebincevic will be in Brazil to support Bosnian Dragons (Photo credit courtesy to Eldin Trebincevic)

the month long tournament. For me, seeing my old homeland play in Brazil is a victory against those who wanted Bosnia to dissolve.  Soccer was always part of Balkan identity and our way of life. The first sign of war I remember was in 1990, when a soccer match between a Croatian and Serbian team turned into a violent riot. This marked the break-up of Yugoslavia. Now the game has become our weapon to win back our pride and place in the international arena.

History always repeated itself in the former Yugoslavia. Every fifty years war erupted and mass graves were dug. But for Safet Susic, the current Bosnia’s head soccer coach, it’s repeating happily. He was one of the Bosnians in Yugoslavia’s squad who played against Argentina in 1990. This June 15th,  he will lead his  23 men against the Argentines in one of the world’s most famous soccer meccas, Maracaná Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.  I first went to Rio in 2008 with my brother Eldin. We visited this shrine of a stadium and  took a picture holding our ancient, war time Bosnian flag. Six years later history would repeat for us too.

Eldin ordered a World Cup tank-top for me from the World Soccer Shop Online. I laughed to see it come with players stickers and a soccer album, the kind I had at ten. For me, this is  more than a soccer game. Just being able to play is a chance for redemption.

Kenan Trebincevic is a author of the acclaimed book “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (with Susan Shapiro); Penguin, New York, 2014.

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