Less than two decades ago, the Bosnian town of Foca was best known for being the place to see Yugoslavia's most promising football stars. A number of players from the 'golden generation' that triumphed at the FIFA Youth World Cup in Chile in 1987 first began turning heads while gracing the green grass pitches in that leafy part of south east Bosnia.
Yet type in 'Foca' today on any internet search engine and it is hard to get past the Bosnian Conflict of 1992-95. In the last European war of the 20th Century, the town witnessed an unfair share of horrors, leaving a people psychologically scarred and geographically divided.
Now football is helping to bring the region's public together again. The revival of the once famous youth tournament along with the introduction of a fast-paced socially interactive street football event aim at healing emotional wounds and paving the way to greater cultural understanding and lasting peace.
From 11-13 May 'Foca 07' united the young from Bosnia and Herzegovina, across the former Yugoslavia and beyond. After the success of the first two editions of its 11-a-side U-17 tournament, Football Friends, a network member of streetfootballworld - FIFA's strategic ally, staged a parallel street football event that was supported by FIFA in the framework of the Football for Hope movement. The two tournaments were played side-by-side and watched by thousands of locals encouraged by the warm weather and the prospect of fine football to make the short walk along the Cehotina River to the stadium.
"We want to change the negative image of Foca and show that it's possible for Muslims and Serbs to be friends," said Zoran Avramovic, President of the Belgrade-based foundation Football Friends and director of Red Star Belgrade's sports marketing agency. "When you say you are visiting Bosnia people look up at you as if you were mad. They think of the war and stories of war criminals but the past is the past and we need to close this book. I can never forget my town and I wanted to show that it's a normal place with normal people - a place where football can make a difference."
Using his contacts in the game, Zoran persuaded eight teams - Vardar of Macedonia, Groclin of Poland, PAOK of Greece, Maribor of Slovenia, Zeljeznicar of Bosnia, Red Star of Serbia, Buducnost of Montenegro along with home team Sutjeska - to play in a straight knockout competition. A stone's throw away, hundreds huddled around two simply constructed plastic-boarded arenas to watch 12 teams compete in the boy-girl two-a-side U-16 street football tournament. This complementary event was added after organisers travelled to Berlin last year to be part of and witness the success of the first Street Football World Cup - the streetfootballworld festival 06.
With the whole town seemingly engaged in the festival, no one was made to feel like a loser.
"I want Foca to become a town of friendship and of sport," declared town mayor Zdravko Krsmanovic after patiently answering questions from TV reporters from across the region. "It doesn't matter who wins. The important thing is that youths from other countries can take part. We want to send a message that Foca is an open town, and because of the tradition here we can do it through football."
Dayton, division and darkness
Aside for a chunk of iron fencing from the bridge bombed by NATO forces that lies in the clear waters of the River Drina, the odd spray of bullet marks on town centre walls and an unusually prominent hilltop graveyard, there is little evidence of the hostilities that took place in Foca little more than a decade ago. The town was taken by Serb forces at the start of the war in 1992 and under the post-war 1995 Dayton Agreement remained a Serb town in the Republika Srpska. Many of the Muslims, who had previously made up the majority of the town's 40,000 inhabitants, moved to the nearby town of Gorazde, which was drawn up in Bosnia's other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Today curfews no longer exist but once night falls it is still extremely rare to see Muslim youths in Foca or Serb children in Gorazde. For a few days in May however, children from all religions and ethnic groups were found playing alongside one another and swapping stories in unofficial gatherings long after the brilliant sun had cast its last shadow.
Out of many new friendships, two boys, Brendim Rusiti, from Macedonia, and local lad Dejan Simovic could not resist football's power of attraction, forming an unbeatable team in the off-stage matches spontaneously springing up on the streets of Foca.
"We met yesterday morning. I saw how well he played, so I asked him if he wanted to get together," said 14-year-old Brendim.
"He's a good lad," agreed 12-year-old Dejan, "and I thought we'd make a good team. It will be sad to say goodbye now as I know it will be difficult for us to play together again."
Unlike other street football projects, there were no classes, vaccinations or clean ups associated with playing. During the short breaks between the games youths were simply left alone to be curious - for most of them it was a rare chance to meet their counterparts from other cities and villages around Foca.
"It was slow at first but they soon began to swap telephone numbers and are now promising to stay friends afterwards," said sports teacher Jelena Dostic, who is now preparing for Foca 08 where she hopes Brendim, Dejan and many others will be reunited. "It is just so sweet to see the children having fun and being happy."
In the youth final, Poland's Groclin showed nerves of steel to triumph over Slovenia's Maribor on penalties, while in the nearby playground Sarajevo's OFFS, a predominantly Muslim team, came from behind to defeat home side Sutjeska 12-10 in a pulsating last street football encounter.
But football in Foca did not end with the final whistle and the awards ceremony. Hours later, the streets and parks of the town were suddenly filled with children and teenagers kicking around balls. Still dressed in their shirts and shorts, they wore something still seen too rarely in recent times here: a smile.