Football: Game that breathed beyond the bombs

Andrew Longmore meets the coach whose work in a war-torn land has brought perspective

THE opening sequence of a documentary about football in Bosnia, which has yet to find a slot on national television, shows a stadium in Sarajevo. In the background the old stands can still be seen, charred and decrepit. A man walks through the centre of the screen: "1993, 1994, 1995," he says, pointing to different parts of the field. "Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox". What was once the training pitch of Bosna FC is now a cemetery. The man stops. "This must have been the penalty area." The graves stack up on the six-yard box. "I hate to think how many young footballers are buried 'ere," he says.

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."

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'