Edin Dzeko: Manchester City’s Bosnian striker is a diamond hewn from hardship and patriotism

By Will van de Wiel
Photography by Rory van Millingen

This article first appeared in Issue Six of The Green Soccer Journal, Spring 2014

October 15th, 2013: a date that will be forever etched on the minds of the people of Bosnia. Just 10 years earlier, the streets of Sarajevo were stained with blood as a brutal siege on the capital eviscerated a nation lost in the struggle for its own independence.

But on this occasion, the colour pervading the streets was of a different hue. The permeable red was not the ochre-tinged remnants of battle, but the crimson luminescence of triumphant flares; the sparks not of shrapnel and bullets spewed by bombs and sniper fire, but of cascading fireworks of revelry.

Even the sounds, once shouts and screams, had become celebratory whoops; and the tears, once heavy with sorrow and hardship, rolled down cheeks with a light, iridescent twinkle of joy. Bosnia-Herzegovina, only 22 years a nation, had qualified for the World Cup for the first time in its history.

A 1-0 win against Lithuania in Kaunas thanks to a goal by talented forward Vedad Ibiševic had guaranteed the country its own slice of immortality. Greece were their standout opposition in Group G but, after achieving an identical record, succumbed by dint of their head-to-head – Safet Sušic’s side drew out in Piraeus, and won the reverse fixture 3-1.

Bosnia had come close before but successive playoffs for the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships in 2012 against Portugal had resulted in agonising near-misses and no small degree of anguish. They shouldn’t even have been in a play-off for Euro 2012. They were 11 minutes away from qualifying in Paris against France, until a Samir Nasri penalty meant they had to face Cristiano Ronaldo and co. They drew 0-0 at home, but were trounced 6-2 away.

Heartbreak and scars – many Bosnians have suffered with no recourse, so the people felt this victory, and they celebrated. The fans partied draped in the colours of their country, and they were joined by their heroes. One of them, the ‘Bosanski Dijamant’, or Bosnian Diamond as he is known in his homeland, Manchester City’s powerful striker Edin Džeko, has fond memories of the night.

“Around 50,000 people were waiting for us there in the city centre,” he recalls, his blue eyes shining. “It was an amazing feeling. We came back from Lithuania around two-thirty in the morning and everybody was still there waiting for us and wanting to celebrate with us. It was amazing.”

Pictures he posted on Instagram offer a powerful corollary to his words. The gusto for the national team, who are supported only by Muslims in Bosnia (the Serb and Croat communities root for Serbia and Montenegro) translates into impressive numbers at matches, home and away. Around 5,000 fans made the trip to Lithuania to cheer their team to qualification, and the expectation weighed heavily on Džeko and his teammates.

He exhales before explaining. “It was a hard game. I was definitely tired afterwards and needed two or three days to recover because of everything – the celebration and the trip and the game. It was physically and mentally very hard because there was a lot of pressure, because everyone was already there in Brazil.  We needed to win it.”  “We went from the airport with the open bus and spent some time with them,” he recalls. “The people are happy, because the people follow us. Wherever we go it’s like a home game, everywhere. Let’s say Slovakia there are 10,000 people. So you can see how they support us, how the people enjoy the football and I’m very happy that we gave them back something that they really wanted.”

 

“The people are happy, because the people follow us. Wherever we go it’s like a home game, everywhere.”

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest on any city in recorded military history, lasting from 1992 to 1996, and nearly 100,000 citizens of the former Yugoslav republic had lost their lives by the time the conflict ended. The legacy of the Bosnian war still lives on in the fracture and infighting rife in upper echelons of political power in the country. The Dayton Peace Agreement signed in 1996 spawned an ethnic power share which has not lent itself to effective government. The current rate of unemployment is 28 per cent in Bosnia and a war-torn past has given way to uncertainty and disaffection. Broken souls are not always saved by sport, but in an age when politics has become a bankrupt vehicle for the championing of identity, it has become one of the most powerful avenues for communal expression.

And for Džeko, who was born just before the conflict started, spending his early childhood in the midst of the siege of the city—his home destroyed, his family forced to move in with his grandparents, who lived with 15 people crammed into an apartment of 35 square metres—the complexion of the achievement carries a shade not drawn by previous successes.

“It was different, different because we did it for the first time in 22 years since ex-Yugoslavia was in, and from 1992 there has been only Bosnia. So it is definitely special for the players, for the people, for the whole country, because we were all waiting for it a long time. Especially to do it for the first time when it’s Brazil, where football, let’s say, began.”

The tournament, now just months away, has always been a dream for footballers, but this year’s iconic location has increased its magnetism. However, as laudable as Bosnia’s qualification is, the stark truth is that their group was not one which would have made more established nations tremble. But Džeko is confident that they can cause an upset in South America.

“I think we have a few great players,” he says. “And a young team. [Miralem] Pjanic, who plays for Roma, and Ibisevic, as well as [Asmir] Begovic, the goalkeeper – it’s a very important position for every team and we are good there. It was our dream to play the World Cup against the biggest teams in the world and I think we are ready.”

But surely there are some teams he would rather avoid? Džeko who, with thick legs and an almost ascetically thin upper body looks to have been chiselled from hard knocks, pushes at a smile once more. “I would like to just avoid Spain and the rest, I don’t mind. Spain are always favourites. With Brazil and Germany they are favourites. Holland is always playing well in qualification, but in the cups a little bit…” He shrugs his shoulders.

He got his wish. Bosnia have been drawn with Nigeria, Iran and Argentina in Group F, to whom they lost a friendly just before the draw was announced. “Argentina has some great players and if Messi is one hundred per cent then anything is possible” he says of their prospects. We broach the subject of England, where Džeko has been playing for the last two years, and their chances at this summer’s tournament. His response is a curt, “I don’t think so” before he elaborates, citing player fatigue as one of the factors hindering their cause.

“It will be difficult to win it and there are too many great teams. Yeah [burnout] is definitely one of the things which doesn’t help the English team because every other league gets minimum seven days off, so I think it’s enough, but in England the players are much more tired than the rest of the teams.”

I point out that many players from big nations at this year’s World Cup play in England, himself included. So surely burnout is a concern of his own? “You can’t do anything about it. You play almost every three days. If you play Champions League like the big clubs or the FA Cup and make it to the final, semi-final, then it’s a lot of games.”

And injury? Does he wake up in a cold sweat at night fearing the worst? The plight of Arsenal’s Theo Walcott, who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in an FA Cup match against Tottenham in January, will have precipitated uncomfortable feelings amongst his peers. Džeko grimaces but says, “I think the most important thing is not to think about that, just to play and enjoy your football and hopefully nobody will get injured.”

It’s nothing new that the Premier League season is a long, draining war of aggregate hardship, but with the uncertainty precipitated by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and the (re)emergence of Arsenal as arrant challengers, as well as major investment from teams like City and Tottenham following the sale of Gareth Bale and, of course, the return of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, the competition – or should I say, the uncertainty – has risen another, fascinating level.

City have been a juggernaut at home this season, winning all their games and despatching even their direct rivals with awesome disdain. Their away form improved after a turbulent opening to the campaign, which, allied to the strength of their squad has caused many, including Mourinho (not that the genuflection from the Portuguese should be entirely trusted), to label them favourites for the title.

“Yeah he’s right that we have one of the best teams in the league, but we have to show it,” he says. In the only encounter between the two at the time of writing, at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea snatched victory in the final minute after a calamity from goalkeeper Joe Hart, an error which was the final straw for Pellegrini, who axed him from the team until he regained his confidence. Not that Džeko ever lost faith in England’s number one. “For me, along with Begovic, Joe is the best keeper in England” he says firmly. “Mistakes happen, that is something normal in football, but we are all behind Joe. Like he saved us out in CSKA [Moscow] the week before, because that save was amazing, but nobody was talking about that – when a mistake happens everything comes out and everyone talks too much. But we believe in him and that’s important.”

Arsenal have been the pacesetters this year, but because of the utilitarian excellence of the league, Džeko insists there are no standout contenders in their eyes. “No, we’re not talking about other teams. The season is long and even United is there behind us but they are always dangerous. You have Chelsea, Arsenal. Chelsea with Mourinho is a different team and will definitely challenge for the league. Arsenal is playing a good season so far because they made a great signing, Mesut Özil, and he will definitely help them to improve and Liverpool is playing good. Tottenham have some great new players, so there will be a lot of teams fighting.”

Džeko has played more for City this season, although early on, despite a misleading show of faith from Manuel Pellegrini in the summer, the picture looked different, primarily due to summer signing Álvaro Negredo’s flying start in tandem with the scintillating Sergio Agüero. An injury to the latter before Christmas meant Džeko got an extended run in the team, however, and, perhaps not as clinically as the Argentine, or as robustly as the Spaniard, he scored goals. But there is still a sense of the enigmatic about Džeko – a player who can, all in a breath, vacillate from clinical and powerful, to dithersome and ungainly.

All in all, given that summer signing Steven Jovetic has been absent with a succession of niggling injuries for much of the campaign, Džeko must wonder where his place in the hierarchy truly is when all are well. I ask him if it’s difficult when he’s out of the team and notice him tense up before saying, “It’s the manager’s decision.” I let the silence linger for a moment. “We have twenty-something great players, everyone wants to play, so everyone trains very hard. Everyone wants to improve and when you train with big players you want to improve yourself.”

The response feels rehearsed and it’s no surprise.

His contract is up next year, and he’s been linked with a move back to Germany, with Borussia Dortmund thought to be interested. He’s coy again and won’t comment on direct speculation. “No, I don’t think about that,” he says. “I still have a one-and-half-year contract and I will do the best for me.”

Edin Dzeko

“I followed [AC Milan] since I was a kid and [Andriy] Schevchenko was my favourite player.”

But he opens up and relaxes again on the subject of the Bundesliga, where he was a league winner with Wolfsburg before being signed by City in 2009. The year they won Germany’s premier competition he notched an impressive 26 goals, second only to teammate Grafite in the charts (the two of them are the most successful strike duo to have played in the Bundesliga) and he still has a lot of affection for his former team, and the league they play in.

“Yeah I follow what happens in Germany in general and of course Wolfsburg, although there are not many players I knew there now, there is only a few but I still have friends there.” His City team were outplayed by defending Bundesliga and Champions League champions Bayern Munich at the Etihad in September, a night on which his manager Manuel Pellegrini drew criticism for starting with two strikers and offering up a four-man midfield, against Bayern’s six. Anxiety brought on by an early Joe Hart mistake may have hampered their game, but ceding so much central territory to a team constructed upon the notion of midfield supremacy was labelled naive in the aftermath.

“That was the most difficult game I have played at City,” Džeko says, blowing out his cheeks. “Bayern were just the better team. I don’t know, maybe we could have done it differently, but whoever played that game would have found it difficult.” He pauses. “But we have learned from it.”

The return fixture—a comeback from 2-0 down to a 3-2 win and with, largely, a second string side – would suggest that they did, and that the gulf is not as wide as first imagined. But in the wake of Manchester United’s 5-0 win at Bayer Leverkusen in November, and the general poor showing of German teams in the Champions League apart from Bayern and Dortmund, allied to Bayern’s stranglehold on the domestic game, there have been some critics suggesting that the two Teutonic behemoths are doing more harm than good in the Bundesliga.

But Džeko is encouraged by recent developments in Germany, and is interesting on the comparison with the Premier League. “They are different but the German Bundesliga has improved a lot recently, especially with Bayern and Dortmund playing in the Champions League Final last year,” he says. “They have a lot of young players there. I think the league is a lot more technically and tactically better than English Premier League but here there is a different speed – it is a much faster and stronger league. Here there are six or seven top, top teams but in Germany there are only really one or two teams who can win the league. Bayern and Dortmund are too good for the others.”

And what of Spain? After all, City were drawn against Barcelona in the last-16 of the Champions League, largely because of an error in calculation from Manuel Pellegrini who, when 3-2 up in Munich, left Sergio Agüero on the bench rather than chasing the four goals needed to oust them as group winners. “I think it’s not interesting, La Liga. It’s only two teams maximum. Atletico [Madrid] is playing good football this season but I’m not sure they can keep it until the end. Barcelona and Real are just too good for the others.”

I mention the mega deals for Gareth Bale and Neymar, interested to hear what he thinks of the start the pair of them have made to their careers out in Iberia. Džeko is a fan of them, but still thinks they are in the midst of a settling-in period. “They are both great players and obviously it’s different to play in Brazil and England. Especially for Bale with the pressure, but they are both good players.”

Attention quickly turns to Italy, and Džeko’s soft spot for AC Milan. A team who have struggled this year in Serie A, sacking manager Massimiliano Allegri before turning to San Siro legend Clarence Seedorf to galvanise the club and start the process needed to restore former glories. “I still follow them,” he says enthusiastically. “I followed them since I was a kid and [Andriy] Schevchenko was my favourite player. At the moment it is not going well but Milan are one of the biggest clubs in the world and they always come back.”

He now has another reason for keeping an eye on events in Milan. Former City employee, his friend Mario Balotelli, plays for them. Tabloid editors gobbled up his madcap antics with glee when he was in Manchester, but he was eventually sold when the patience of the (unusually) paternalistic Roberto Mancini faded with his own job prospects. “Mario is…” Džeko smiles. “It’s easy to be friends with Mario. Now even more I follow Milan because he is there just to see how he will play there and everything. I think he’s home and obviously he’s happy – not so many English journalists waiting for him to make mistakes.” He grins.

Over the course of the interview Džeko’s body language has been suggestive – open and warm when discussing the World Cup or Bundesliga, but very tense and withdrawn when quizzed about his role in the City team or his future. I try one last time to get him to open up about his plans. “I don’t think about [leaving].” he repeats. “We will see what happens in the future. I don’t think about other clubs now I am concentrating on City and Brazil.”

The almost misty-eyed way he talks about Brazil and the deep cathartic effect qualifying for the World Cup has had on Bosnia might mean that, at the moment, his thoughts really are going no further than this summer’s tournament. But with Robert Lewandowski’s move away from Borussia Dortmund a certainty, rumours abound that he may be plying his trade at the Westfalenstadion next season. The affection for the German league remains, as does his childhood reverence for AC Milan, and you wouldn’t bet against Džeko not only fulfilling a dream, but reuniting with his rambunctious friend in Italy.

But still, you wonder whether Džeko feels he has unfinished business in England. After all, he’s not yet been the main man at a top side in the way he would have hoped. Despite flashes of the predatory and the artful, the lingering sense is one of frustration; that we are yet to really see the Bosanski Dijamant sparkle in the manner befitting his sobriquet. Maybe he will for his country this summer, for his own battle lines are drawn – and a man cultivated in hardship must conquer what lies before him once more.

This article first appeared in Issue Six of The Green Soccer Journal, Spring 2014

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