Sunday's Group F encounter between Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina might not seem overly special to the outside world, but it is undeniably the most important match in Bosnian football history.
The Golden Lilies' first match at a FIFA World Cup™ is a source of great excitement within the squad and back home in the Bosnia, explained Asmir Begovic in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. For Stoke City's talented shot-stopper, this weekend's opener cannot come soon enough.
Begovic was born in the former Yugoslavia, though his family chose to flee the brutal war engulfing their homeland when Asmir was still young. He grew up in Germany and Canada, with his performances for the Canucks at youth level prompting a call-up for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in his adopted homeland.
FIFA.com spoke to the 6'6 player, who will turn 27 the day before his side’s second group match against Nigeria, about his World Cup debut, opponents Argentina and his father - a former shot-stopper who taught the young Asmir everything he knows about goalkeeping.
FIFA.com: Your first match is fast approaching. How do you feel?
Asmir Begovic: I feel good. We’re well prepared for the match. We’re happy to finally be in Rio and we’re looking forward to the task at hand. It’s the first major tournament any of us have been to.
This is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first World Cup finals. Can you sense the level of excitement back home and have you received messages wishing you luck?
Yes, we've received a lot of messages, e-mails, pictures and other gestures from back home. The support is absolutely fantastic. I think it's great. You just need to enjoy it and soak it all up while it lasts because this is not an everyday experience. On Sunday we can finally get our campaign underway. It will be a wonderful experience for all of us.
Have you already envisaged yourself lining up on the pitch and singing the national anthem?
The thought gives me goosebumps. You work towards such a moment your whole life, always hoping to represent your country and play for the national team. It'll be a special moment for me, my team-mates and the whole country. I'm bursting with excitement.
Your first World Cup match is taking place in a special stadium, the Maracana, where you're facing a great team in Argentina. Does that make your debut that little bit more special?
It's certainly a huge challenge. However, we’re looking forward to the match. It’s a dream for all of us to play in a major tournament and it doesn't get much bigger than playing in Rio de Janeiro, in the Maracana and against Argentina of all teams. We have nothing to lose either. It’ll be a fantastic occasion and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.
What are you expecting from Argentina? How do you prepare to face their wealth of attacking options?
It’s difficult to prepare for matches against such opponents. They have fantastic players in all areas, even on the bench, and this means that they have a whole host of options at their disposal. We’ll need to cover a lot of distance because they keep hold of the ball very well, which is why we need to be solid and well-organised in defence. But I think that we’re also capable of causing Argentina problems at the back. We’ll try to create chances going forward and then we’ll see what happens.
You represented Canada at the U-20 World Cup in 2007, a tournament won by an Argentina side including players such as Sergio Romero, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. Those players are now in the first team. Have you kept track of their progress since then? Did they impress you at the time?
I remember that tournament very well and of course I’ve kept an eye on those players over the seven years that have passed since then. All of those players involved are now plying their trade at big clubs. I was part of that generation. We all played at the U-20 World Cup in 2007 and now we’re all playing on the biggest stage of all. It's nice to see. I like watching them and I also come up against some of them in the Premier League. I’m a huge football fan, so it's a real pleasure to watch how those players have progressed.
Imagine the following situation in your opener against Argentina: you’re winning, there are only a few minutes left on the clock and Lionel Messi is clean-through on goal. What would you do? Do you play such situations over in your mind?
Of course I think about such things, but you never really know what'll happen in the heat of the moment. Messi is one of the world’s best players and he's a true genius on the ball. I can just envisage myself trying to make it as difficult as possible for him to put the ball in the back of the net. Perhaps I'd be able to pull off a good save to stop him. You imagine a lot of scenarios: one-on-ones with Messi, one-on-ones with Aguero. Such thoughts are always on your mind, and we prepare for this in training. When the time comes, you just need to replicate what you have done in training and hopefully things will work out for you. I do hope there won’t be a lot of one-on-ones though - it's not exactly an ideal scenario for a goalkeeper.
Your father was a keeper. Did he ever try to make you go in goal?
No he didn't, but I never really needed convincing. I used to watch my father in action and I realised I wanted to play in goal at a young age. I never wanted to be a striker or anything else. Perhaps it’s a shame that I never played in another position because I might have improved my footwork to a certain extent, but I had my heart set on being a goalkeeper.
Did you learn a lot from him?
I did a lot of training with him between the ages of four and ten. He taught me everything I know: how to catch the ball, how to jump properly. It was hugely important for me. He also taught me the importance of having the right technique. I obviously had other coaches in the teams I played for as I progressed through the ranks, but he definitely laid the foundations and so I’m very grateful for his contribution.
Is he coming to Brazil?
He’s very proud and extremely excited for Brazil, but mostly I think he's just happy for me. My whole family’s making the journey over. It’s not just a World Cup experience for me, but for my family too. They’ve been through a lot and had a very tough time during the war.
What are your goals for the World Cup? What can you and your team accomplish?
We have two objectives. On the one hand, to soak up the whole atmosphere, enjoy it all and gain experience, as it could be invaluable for future tournaments. We simply want to improve as a team. On the other hand, we obviously hope to pick up some good results too. We're not just here to take part; we want to get as far as we possibly can and at least to the knockout stages. It won’t be easy though, as we have three very tough opponents in Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. Having said that, I’m convinced we've got the quality to make it through.
And have you made any plans for your birthday?
[Laughs] No, not yet. Though a win in our match against Nigeria would be the perfect birthday present for me. That would be fantastic. Obviously I won’t have too much lined up on the day before the match, but hopefully we can celebrate a bit once it’s over.