Football: Game that breathed beyond the bombs
Andrew Longmore meets the coach whose work in a war-torn land has brought perspective
Sunday 07 June 1998
Scott Lee arrived in Bosnia to drive aid trucks to front-line villages. Five years on, at the age of 31, he is still there, a local hero to the kids who listen more intently to his east London patter than to the warnings of any policeman or the teachings of any schoolmaster. Lee is a totemic figure in a community still dazed by conflict, admired because he takes no sides, has no fear and talks only one language. "When I'm asked what religion I hold," he says, "I just say football."
While the people of Croatia and Yugoslavia, who both begin their campaign a week today, can bury their differences in Le Mondial for the next month, Bosnians are struggling to rebuild their sporting past. A whole generation of players were lost to the war and continuing ethnic divisions are hampering the next. The stadiums are shells, facilities primitive, kit and coaching almost non-existent. Sarajevo, winners of the Bosnian Cup, were refused entry to the Cup-Winners' Cup by Uefa because the country's three football federations - Muslim, Croat and Serb - refused to agree to a play-off. "Football mirrors the country and its people," Lee says. "Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, always passionate." The national teams are dominated by the Muslims; the Bosnian Serb kids are not encouraged to play for unified youth teams, even if selected, and Lee himself has had death threats for daring to cross the divide.
With support from Unicef and Arsenal, Lee has set up a project called the Spirit of Soccer, touring the villages and suburbs in a four-wheel- drive landcruiser with UN number plates loaned from the British embassy. The UN plates are important. His last unmarked car was bombed by the locals until they realised who he was and sent a delegation to apologise. "Football and the mafia," he says. "The only people working across the communities." The car was quickly fixed.
His coaching sessions are nine-tenths football, one-tenth health warning. "I ask the kids what you need to be a professional footballer," he says. "They give me all sorts of answers, dedication, commitment, skill, all that. The real answer is 'your legs'. Dramatic, I know. But it gets their attention." Six million mines are reportedly buried in the soil of Bosnia; the wards of the local children's hospital testify to the dangers of indiscriminate play. "If he sees a Coke can, what does a kid do?" Lee asks. "He kicks it." He mimes an explosion. "Packed with ball bearings." The message is pretty simple, reinforced by posters of David Seaman and Dennis Bergkamp and the slogan "Be part of the team, be mine aware" above photos of the everyday dangers of Bosnian streetlife: anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, hand grenades, bullets, bombs. Forty per cent of mined areas are unmarked, but it is a telling reflection of a universal passion that football pitches were considered sacred by all sides.
"I tell 'em not to play in houses that have been bombed or on land that has been heavily shelled. I went up to a village one time and found this kid, must have been about 12, who was the local freelance mine detonator. They couldn't wait for the army guys to come, so he did it. He was a football fan, so I gave him an Arsenal shirt and told him not to touch 'em again. During the war, the kids would play in between bouts of sniper fire. That's how much the game means to them." The career of the Bosnian under-15 goalkeeper, barely begun, was ended by a shot through the arm from a rifle.
There is an element of personal catharsis in the journey. Lee was a promising enough player to attract the interest of QPR and Watford during his teens. But after the death of his mother, he drifted out of football, returning a few years later to play semi-pro for Selby and Hertford Town. He did some coaching in the States, found he had a talent for it and was just waiting for a contract to return to Boston when a friend mentioned his work in Bosnia. A chance meeting in a bar with Pedrag Pasic, one-time striking partner of Jurgen Klinsmann, put him in touch with the footballing community in Bosnia and inspired the idea for the Spirit of Soccer once the war was over.
"I thought I would find alot of attitude in the kids when I went back," he recalls. "But, actually, they were all tired and they were ready to have some fun. At the same time, I was wanting to find out if my love for football was still there. I didn't think I was Brian Clough or anything, I started at the bottom, with 100 kids and three footballs and worked my up from there, through pure enthusiasm really." Now he speaks to politicians, coaches 80 kids a day, is the author of a coaching book, translated into the languages of the three communities, and is the subject of a television documentary called Louder than Bombs by Pictorial Heroes, an independent production company in Glasgow. At a recent derby game between his beloved Zelijo FC and Sarajevo, the teams made a special presentation to "Scotty" to thank him for his work. "Twenty-thousand people chanting my name," he laughs. "Me? A nobody."
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