Last 25 April, there was a "Football for Peace" benefit match in Sarajevo, with the national team of Bosnia-Herzegovina lining up against a FIFA World Stars selection. This event was important both for FIFA and for the national association of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Earlier this year, FIFA Magazine paid a visit to Sarajevo.
Sarajevo last March. Snow is still to be seen on the hills and mountains that surround the Bosnian capital, but the hardest part of winter is over. A mild spring day is clearly raising the spirits of the inhabitants, and there is a lively atmosphere in the pretty old town, the shops and the market. The restaurants and cafes are busy, and in the streets there are still some UN Blue Helmets to be seen among the locals, and there are lots of people in town, even during the week. The townsfolk chat cheerfully to each other and laugh a lot; there are friendly faces everywhere and for the visitor a ready smile and a helping hand.
Is this Sarajevo? In Bosnia-Herzegovina? A happy, cheerful, peaceful, contented population?
If only it were so. The old town picture is deceptive. The population is still suffering, or at least most of them. The civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina lasted for three and a half years, brought to an end in late 95 when the Dayton Agreement was signed. But not all wounds have been healed yet. Large areas in Sarajevo still lie in ruins, and no start has been made at re-building. The biggest hospital in this university town of 300,000 people was one of the buildings to go. Sarajevo was a prosperous trade and cultural centre, as the former government building tries to show, but it too was damaged by rockets and grenades. It is still standing, however - a dramatic reminder that there is no money here, not enough even to knock it down completely.
In the country as a whole, there is still a shortage of many basic necessities. There is little money about and few jobs. The EU - aided plan to get the country on its feet again is moving forward very slowly. The government is often powerless to take action since they have no financial resources to tap for the reconstruction of roads and buildings.
The inhabitants have to work on a very tight budget too. The average monthly wage is pitifully low and many citizens have no regular income at all. Some estimates put the level of unemployment in the city as high as 75%. While the political situation has stabilised, on the economic side the country is far from making a recovery.
No cash from the government
"We are a poor nation," says Munib Usanovic, general secretary of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Football Association. An obvious consequence is that there is no financial support for football, which is the most popular game in the country along with basketball. Usanovic: "We do not get any monetary support from the government, absolutely nothing. This is frustrating and makes our work extra difficult."
His words are sadly very true, since football here is desperately in need of a lot of support. There are 11 national teams to provide for and 560 clubs up and down the country, with some 300,000 licensed players. Money is also needed to pay coaches, referees and their assistants, for maintenance of facilities, etc. The main sources of income are FIFA and UEFA. But the support from these two organisations alone is far from enough.
The fact that not everyone has the same idea about which way to go forward is an extra headache for Usanovic. For political reasons there are three separate championships. Last season UEFA did not allow Bosnia-Herzegovina teams to play in its competitions (with the exception of the Intertoto Cup in which one team was allowed to compete).
Usanovic would dearly love to see some solidarity and agreement about his country's football. He hopes that in future there will be three leagues in the country - with 544 teams in all - and clubs from every region taking part. This would bring the association some revenue for TV rights, advertising and sponsoring which could be used for the game as a whole. At the moment the three championships are running so haphazardly that the fans tend to stay away, and the result is that neither the clubs nor the association get much income this way either.
So the match on 25 April will be a very special occasion for Usanovic and his colleagues. The national team will take on the FIFA World Stars in Sarajevo, and Usanovic hopes that the "Football for Peace" benefit will bring in a full house of 36,000 in the Kosevo Stadium, where the opening ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics was staged.
Usanovic has already expressed his thanks to FIFA, which together with UEFA helped the association work out its statutes in 1999. He mentioned especially the assistance of FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter: "Blatter was one of the first to recognise that we needed both moral and financial support, and it is largely thanks to his help that Bosnia has been a FIFA member since 1996. We are forever in his debt."
Comparisons with Brazil
The benefit match will be a chance for Bosnia-Herzegovina to prove to the world that there are some superb footballers in the country. Some have already made it with big European clubs, for example Elvir Balic (Real Madrid) and Hasan Salihamidzic (Bayern Munich). There is a lot of talent in the country as Faruk Hadzibegic testifies, himself a player with FC Sochaux in France for many years, and now national coach: "There is a huge pool of exceptional talent in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the technical side our youngsters are almost the equal of Brazilians of their age."
Had it not been for the war, the standing of the various national teams would be a lot better. At least that is the opinion of Ahmet Pasalic, the man responsible for the national side at the association's headquarters. The war, which lasted from April 1992 to December 1995, cost over 200,000 lives. In Sarajevo alone there were 25,000 victims. Pasalic says that among the 12,000 to 13,000 young people killed, the country lost a lot of talented football players.
During those years of course, running any kind of orgnised competition was out of the question. But football was still played. "It was mainly futsal, since the players were a lot safer playing inside than they would have been out on a field," says Velid Imamovic, head of the international division of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Football Association.
Despite the war, teams tried to practise as regularly as they could, even in the Kosevo Stadium, outside which today thousands of war victims lie buried. But training sessions in the Olympic arena were always being interrupted or postponed, since players and coaches were continually being shot at. Amazingly, no players were killed.
More than just a match
It was no surprise that a lot of Bosnian players attempted to continue their careers abroad. They would be able to earn much more money and whole teams departed, at least for a short while. FC Sarajevo for example was out of the country for more than a year and played over 100 friendly matches.
But signs of the war are still all too obvious in Sarajevo and the rest of the country. Nobody can forget the events of those years. But what the Bosnians want now is a lasting peace, and so the benefit match "Football for Peace" on 25 April in their capital means a lot more than just another match.
The sorrow and the success of Hasan Salihamidzic
Hasan Salihamidzic has achieved what thousands of youngsters in his homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina can only dream about: he has made it as a player abroad and today he is a star and a wealthy man. At just 23 years of age, the midfielder who plays for Germany's most successful team, Bayern Munich, as well as for his own national side, can say: "I have fulfilled my dreams."
But the start of his career was anything but easy; he went through some terrifying and difficult moments.
In December 1992 his father Ahmed took the then 15 year-old Hasan away from the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and travelled with him to the Croatian town of Split. There he packed the boy on a bus for Hamburg. Salihamidzic remembers it all too well: "All the other passengers were Croatians. "At the Slovenian border an armed and hostile-looking guard noticed that Salihamidzic had a Bosnian passport. The boy was sweating and fearing the worst when the guard asked him to get out of the bus.
Salihamidzic, with just 1000 DEM in his pocket, explained to the angry border guard that he was on his way to Hamburg to play football. "You've got courage" was the reply, and the boy was allowed to go on his way.
When he arrived in Hamburg he lodged with a Bosnian family, but although the civil war was raging in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he still felt homesick. The telephone connections to Bosnia were not functioning and he was worried about his family: "I really cried," he recalls.
But he managed to pull himself together: he learned to speak German and worked hard in school, finally earning top grades. On the football side too he was successful. He was taken on by Hamburger SV and later given a professional contract. In 1996 he got his name in the football history book by scoring the very first goal for his newly re-established nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in their match against Croatia. He became a national hero. By then the telephone lines were working again and he learned that his family had been among the lucky ones; when a grenade was thrown through the window into the sitting room of his parents' home in Jablanic it proved to be a dud and the family were unharmed.
On the occasion of his 20th birthday his family gave him the best possible present: they visited him in Hamburg. "We all wept with joy," he told the German magazine Sportbild. "For the first time in four years we were able to celebrate together." A year later he was transferred to Bayern Munich.