Sergej Barbarez made no secret of his dismay when Hamburger SV,
the club closest to his heart, declined to extend his contract in
summer 2006. Most observers concluded that one of the
Bundesliga's few remaining characters would quietly wind down
his career away from the media glare, but the tempestuous striker
typically opted to confound the critics instead. Now in his second
season with Bayer Leverkusen, the 36-year-old is poised to add the
crowning glory to a unique and often moving career.
The Bosnian requires just five more goals to become only the fifth foreigner to pass the 100-goal mark in German top flight football, joining an elite currently comprising Giovane Elber (133), Stephane Chapuisat, Ailton (106 each) and Claudio Pizarro (100). Barbarez, adored by fans for his down-to-earth authenticity but frequently castigated from the press box for a perceived lack of workrate, is the second-highest Bundesliga scorer still playing in the German top flight after Germany superstar Miroslav Klose (106 goals).
"Every day, I still look forward to seeing how I measure up against 20-year-olds," smiles the seasoned pro, who sports striking blonde hair at the present time, affording him a slightly more youthful appearance. With every passing year, Barbarez' level-headedness and experience have increasingly become the hallmarks of his game. After 314 appearances in 15 Bundesliga seasons, he is an undisputed chief among men and a major contributor to Leverkusen's recent run of seven wins in their last eight matches, propelling Bayer to fourth in the Bundesliga and comfortably easing them into the UEFA Cup Round of 32. "He's a genuine leader," Bayer 04 managing director Wolfgang Holzhauser has declared.
Strengthened by adversity
Barbarez watchers are aware that the unceremonious manner of his departure from HSV only served to stoke the fires of ambition in the autumn of his career. The Bosnian developed into one of the Bundesliga's star names during six glorious years in Hamburg, a city he would like to make his home after hanging up his boots, but the club undertook a major team rebuilding exercise 18 months ago and the former Bosnia-Herzegovina international was deemed more or less surplus to requirements. "It was the most extraordinary day of my life. Every part of me was moved in some way. It was like being suspended between heaven and earth," he recalled in a kicker magazine interview, reviewing the day when contract negotiations with Hamburg finally and irrevocably broke down.
The multi-faceted player emerged stronger for the experience, driven on by defiance, towering ambition and his passionate heart. Refusing to accept HSV's implied slight on his age, he overcame a tricky settling-in period to assume a pivotal role in an emerging Leverkusen side. The man capped 48 times by his country, currently on four goals and three assists this term, has stamped his unique authority and style on the Rhineland outfit's game. Barbarez' finely-honed ability to read the play spares him the need to cover huge amounts of ground but still places him in the right place at the right time. Respected former coach Udo Lattek once described him as one of the best footballers he had ever seen, another reason the fans are prepared to forgive a certain aloofness and arrogance in his approach.
No fan of long-term plans
"I wasn't as bad as I was made out to be back then, and I'm not paying much attention to the chorus of praise right now," advises the veteran, drawing on his long experience of the highs and lows of the professional game, and a strong awareness of the futility of long-term planning as a player. Indeed, his stellar Bundesliga career only came about as a result of coincidence and circumstance a full 16 years ago.
Barbarez, who has a street named after him in his home town of Mostar, was vacationing with an uncle in Hanover when civil war engulfed the Balkans at an alarming pace. Young Sergej's father insisted he remain in Germany, where the gifted youth reported for a trial with Hanover 96 and was immediately offered a professional contract. He had a brief spell with Union Berlin before switching to Hansa Rostock and then Borussia Dortmund, although his opportunities were to prove limited under then boss Michael Skibbe, ironically the man now at the Leverkusen helm. Barbarez finally made the breakthrough after moving to Hamburg, topping the Bundesliga scoring charts with 22 goals in 2000-2001, before the arrival of Rafael van der Vaart as a new figurehead in summer 2005 signalled the end of the Bosnian's relationship with HSV.
Coach of the future?
An extraordinary career with its roller-coaster ups and downs has left an indelible impression on this child of the Bundesliga. This remarkable character was an enthusiastic and committed supporter of efforts to promote the game back in his home country, but a falling out with the local association prompted him to end his international involvement in 2006.
Barbarez has by no means given up on the idea of coaching in his home nation at a later date, as he revealed to Die Zeit. "I hope to realise my dream of standing on the touchline at some point. Football is everything in Bosnia. A successful national team would put a smile on people's faces in this difficult economic situation." However, Barbarez has other fish to fry for the time being, as he pushes on towards membership of the Bundesliga's 100-up club.