Asmir Begovic interview: ‘Sarajevo would be bombarded at certain times of the day. People hid in basements’

Over 20 years ago Begovic and his family were forced to flee Bosnia by the bitter civil war. Now, the Stoke keeper tells Ian Herbert, he is a key part of the national side which, thanks to the spirit forged in those times, is going to Brazil this summer

The tunnels still visible on the Sarajevo airport runway brought everything home to Asmir Begovic: the desperate need there had been to dig out an escape route from the gunfire and the fear that always came when darkness fell on a Bosnia riven by civil war.

More than 20 years have passed since his family took him, then a four-year-old, away from the carnage which befell their home town, Trebinje, after ethnic conflict between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats exploded as Yugoslavia was torn apart. The Begovics simply packed up the car and left, heading into a form of exile which saw them consider settling in Turkey and Sweden, before finding safety among relatives in Kirchhausen, Germany and ultimately moving on again, to Canada. And though Bosnia was always there, in the fabric of an upbringing during which Begovic was encouraged to speak the language, celebrate the festivals, eat Bosnian cuisine and know of the painfully slow recovery, it is football which has restored the Stoke City goalkeeper to the country where he most belongs.

Begovic, on whom Stoke manager Mark Hughes will be relying more heavily than ever as Arsenal visit the Britannia Stadium in the Premier League today, began to restore the link when he was asked to play for the newly formed Bosnia international side in 2009. It brought him into the company of players like Edin Dzeko, now a close friend; the two look out for each other and follow each other’s progress. Having delivered him back to Sarajevo to play matches, it has now given him the opportunity which never seemed conceivably possible – a place at this summer’s World Cup, in which Bosnia’s first appearance sees them grouped with Argentina, Iran and Nigeria.

Premier League football under Hughes is offering new football horizons, too. He is being asked to provide a more ambitious, technical, footballing component to a Stoke side now committed to going  forward.

Children pass a Bosnian fighter during the civil war Children pass a Bosnian fighter during the civil war (Getty Images)
“You have to be as switched on as you can and concentration levels have to be huge. From a ball-playing point of view you have to start dictating the play and starting attacks,” Begovic says, in the Canadian English he acquired in his teenage years – and there is no disguising the sense that this is an opportunity. No one will begrudge him that.

They will tell you in these parts that Stoke might well have been relegated without his performances at the back end of last season. These brought him to the attention of Roberto Mancini at Manchester City and Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, who scouted Begovic throughout 2012-13 and then saw all he needed in the goalkeeper’s giant display at Anfield on the opening day of this season.

Life has been a perennial form of adaptation, ever since the family’s flight to Germany, where they lived for six years before moving another 4,500 miles to the oil and ice hockey city of Edmonton, Canada. There was always a part of Bosnia in him, he says. That there was also always a goalkeeping aspiration is down to his father, Amir, who played for national Yugoslavian league side FK Leotar at Trebinje, 15 miles from the Adriatic coast, where he was brought up and where Begovic was born. His father also represented Yugoslavia at youth-team levels up to the age of 23, picked up the pieces with German semi-professional club Kirchhausen, where his games took the two of them off in the car once more – with Begovic Jnr this time the indefatigable follower of the team through several promotions.

“He was my first coach and he taught me a lot of the basics and all the techniques when I was younger,” Begovic says of his father. “After school, on weekends, we just got the balls and ‘Let’s go train, let’s go work’. It was never a chore. It taught me about hard work.”

It was in his early 20s, when he returned to Bosnia for his grandfather’s funeral, that Begovic really saw what the conflict had taken from his family. Dzeko’s stories told him much about the dispossessed. “He and his family stayed through the whole war so he was in everything a bit more and experienced it; it probably means a lot more to him than us,” Begovic says. But the testimonies of an aunt, Amila Skero, and two cousins, then rebuilding their lives in Trebinje, drove home all he had left behind.

“They talked about the city being bombarded with gunfire,” he says. “There were certain times of the day you [could] expect it and that’s when you went into hiding in basements, on the ground, in houses. You are never comfortable walking down the street because you know anything could happen; snipers, people could be around.

“It’s just the way war works and it’s not nice for anyone to be around. You see it at Sarajevo when you look at the airport runway and see those escape tunnels. A lot of people went underground there to get out of the city.”

The memories and the evidence are part of the reason why the charity he established last year – the Asmir Begovic Foundation – sends a large proportion of the money raised to causes in Bosnia, where Begovic is also an ambassador for the Special Olympics, the organisation helping to build sports facilities and provide coaching for children with learning disabilities.

His mind was made up that he would play football for Bosnia if he could; he stopped playing for Canada at Under-20 level to keep the route open. “It was in the back of my mind, ‘Maybe one day’,” he says. And then, five years ago, the call came from Miroslav Blazevic, the national team coach at the time. “He said, ‘I want you to play for us. Are you coming to play for us?’ I was, ‘OK, let’s do it’.” Two weeks later Begovic was a Bosnia international.

The bond forged out of humanitarian crisis reveals itself each time the squad re-assembles, as it will next week for a friendly in Ecuador. The death of three Bosnian supporters in a car crash in the Polish town of Lomza last October as they drove home from the win over Lithuania which saw Bosnia and Herzegovina qualify for Brazil, was a tragedy for both nation and team. Three of the players attended the funerals. “Our closeness as players and as people and the bond we have with the people who follow us is something you can’t really describe,” Begovic says. “If there was a time when we could help a family out through a tough time then sure, we would.”

His travels prepared him for the nomadic footballer’s life, when the time came to leave Canada – initially for Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, after a scout had seen him and sorted out a trial. A tough period of loans ensued, sending him to such diverse locations as La Louvière in Belgium, Macclesfield Town, Yeovil and Ipswich. 

Then, when economic catastrophe engulfed Portsmouth, came the choice of Stoke or Redknapp’s Tottenham four years ago. It was the independent soul in him which took him and his American-born wife, Nicolle – whom he met on the south coast and with whom he has a young daughter, Taylor – to Staffordshire. He knew he could fight his way into the Stoke side.

The new technical opportunities the Hughes brand of football has brought has been accompanied by a fight for Premier League survival, but Begovic is happy with the trade-off. “There might be more holes than there were before; if guys are getting the chance to go forward more and express themselves it will happen. It works both ways,” he says. And though the concession of some poor goals saw Arsenal comfortably beat Stoke in north London in September, the side’s first league win over Manchester United in 30 years and last week’s narrow defeat at Manchester City revealed a side developing in their new philosophy.

When this challenge is out of the way Begovic will form part of what promises to be one of the most fascinating football stories of the summer in Brazil – one country he has not yet travelled to. “There’s work to do before then but I can’t pretend that I’ve not had a thought about it,” he says. “It means the world  to us.”

My other life

I’ve become a dressage enthusiast! Not because I’m good at sitting still on a horse but because my wife Nicolle is. She is going through the ranks and wants to compete in the Olympics herself, and though the dressage events are at weekends when you get to grand prix level, she is competing in the week at the moment, which means I go to support her after training, when I can. There are a lot of different types – freestyle, dressage to music, and you remember the Olympics dancing horses. So I’m the dressage expert in our dressing room.

The Asmir Begovic Foundation’s aims and events are listed on asmirbegovicfoundation.com

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