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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future