The lamp-post of Sarajevo takes chance to shine
Sunday 27 September 2009
Most footballers will take any opportunity to avoid talking to the press, so when Edin Dzeko was called away a few minutes into our chat, I didn't really expect to see him again. But a quarter of an hour later he returned. "Sorry about that," he said. "The prime minister turned up and I had to have my picture taken with him." Which tells you two things: that the Wolfsburg forward has become a major celebrity in Bosnia; and that he seems utterly unfazed by it.
A Sarajevo journalist tells the story of having gone to Germany a couple of years ago to do a piece on the two Bosnian players at Hoffenheim. On his way back he and his photographer made a snap decision to drive to Wolfsburg to see Dzeko. Not only did he agree to a lengthy interview late that evening, but having tried to book them into a hotel and discovered that a VW conference meant there were no beds to be had anywhere in the vicinity, he gave them the keys to his own flat and went to stay with his girlfriend.
The sense of hospitality is typically Bosnian, and it is that, as much as his goals, that has made him such a popular figure in his homeland.
He is very much a child of Sarajevo – and it may be, of course, that it is precisely that which makes him such an atypical footballer. "I was six when the war started," he said. "It was terrible. My house was destroyed so we went to live with my grandparents. The whole family was there, maybe 15 people all staying in an apartment about 35 metres square. It was very hard. We were stressed every day in case somebody we knew died."
Football was the last thing on his mind. "A lot of footballers start to play kicking a ball around in the street but for me that was impossible," he said. "But when the war finished I was much stronger mentally. After the war I played with my friends in the streets, at school, then my father took me to Zeljeznicar." One of the two great clubs of the city, Zeljeznicar's stadium lay on the front line. When the siege was finally lifted, the first thing players and officials had to do was to clear the pitch of mines.
Even once he began training though, the idea of playing in the Champions' League seemed remote. He was tall and gangling, and in a country that believes players should be nippy and creative, he became something of a figure of fun and was given the nickname "Kloc" – a slang term for a lamp-post. When the Czech side Teplice offered to buy him for €25,000 (£23,000), as one director put it, "we thought we'd won the lottery".
Teplice understood how to use a target man and, after two seasons there, he was sold to Wolfsburg for €4.5 million. When Milan and Arsenal came sniffing in the summer, his estimated value had shot up to around €25m.
Given his style of play has so regularly been described as "English", it is the Premier League that really tempts him. "It will be something unbelievable to play Manchester United," Dzeko said. "It's a chance for me to play against some of the best defensive players in Europe, and I want to show that I can play on the big stage. I am a fan of AC Milan, but my big dream is to play in England."
To suggest Dzeko is just a target man, though, would be unfair, for while he is good in the air and holds the ball up well, he is also quick and, as his 26 goals in 29 games last season proved, he can finish.
His strike partnership with the rapid Brazilian dribbler Grafite was crucial to Wolfsburg's first Bundesliga title, the service being provided by another Bosnian, the elegant if slow Zvjezdan Misimovic.
"We played two years in the national team together, and also in Wolfsburg, so I know him and he knows me," Dzeko said. "He's a very good technical player and he's very clever, and for every striker it's important to have somebody behind like him. He's a good passer and if you make a run he always sees it."
With Bosnia seemingly on the brink of a play-off spot for World Cup qualification, that relationship between Dzeko and Misimovic, a Bosnian Serb who was born in Munich and played for Serbia at youth level, has become emblematic of the spirit of unity that has carried the national squad forward over the past 18 months.
Characteristically, Dzeko is relaxed about the issue. "For me it was never a problem if somebody was Serb, Croat or Muslim," he said. "What is important is whether they are a good man."
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