Edin Dzeko: From Yugoslav minefields to Champions’ League semis – Part 1

As a kid, Edin Dzeko used to play football in the fields of Sarajevo, unsure whether he’ll be able to play there the next day. This is Part One of his incredible journey from war-torn Yugoslavia to playing the Champions League semi-finals with AS Roma.
Edin Dzeko has always played his football while looking over his shoulder. Even after a truckload of goals in the Premier League, Bundesliga and now the Serie A, he hasn't received the adulation that a man of his achievements deserves.
Edin Dzeko has always played his football while looking over his shoulder. Even after a truckload of goals in the Premier League, Bundesliga and now the Serie A, he hasn’t received the adulation that a man of his achievements deserves. Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli.

“I just do not think that you are good enough.”

The gift of language is remarkable in the sense that one can convey exactly what they are thinking or feeling. And yet, a simple combination of letters and words that come together to form the above statement will crush the soul of any person. Nobody wants to hear that they are not good enough; let alone somebody telling you that you are no good for the thing that you love the most in the world.

Let us take a trip down memory lane and sightsee around the landscape of German football in 2008/09. One of the most exciting and memorable seasons in Bundesliga history, for it isn’t everyday that you read a name other than Bayern Munich next to the caption of Bundesliga Champions. Wolfsburg won the title that season… Almost impossible to imagine, but can you ever completely second guess football?

Managed by Felix Magath, a tough disciplinarian, that Wolfsburg team had a strong spine and two forwards that led the club to unthinkable glory. Not much unlike what Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante did in England a few years later, it was Edin Dzeko, Edinaldo Batista Libanio (more famously known as Grafite) and Zvjezdan Misimović, who wreaked havoc and set the league on fire.

Not only did Dzeko and Grafite form the most lethal strike duo in Bundesliga history in terms of goals scored, Misimovic recorded 20 assists and Wolfsburg won 16 out of their 17 home matches that season. By all definitions, the Wolfsburg team was not good enough to outdo Bayern Munich over an entire league season, but if they had let that thought affect their game, we would not have seen a miracle come to life.

For players who found themselves playing for a supposedly mid-table Bundesliga team, far from the glitz and glamour of Europe, most would consider winning the title the peak of their athletic careers, maybe even lives.

Dzeko, now 32, plies his trade in Italy for AS Roma. He cuts a dejected figure at Camp Nou as the whistle blows; seeing his body language you would not think that he had scored at the feared home of FC Barcelona. For although the Bosnian has found the back of the net, Roma have lost 4-1, and they need a minor miracle to advance to the next round now.

And it is indeed a glorious spectacle of football in the return leg at Rome as Dzeko scores the opening goal, and then Daniele De Rossi and Kostas Manolas chip in to send the mighty FC Barcelona crashing out of the Champions League in one of the best comebacks we have ever seen. The stadium is in delirium, “A Greek God has done the unthinkable in Rome!” Peter Drury shouts as Manolas heads past Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Scenes.

The AS  Roma side were, on paper, a side not good enough to beat the mighty Messi-led Barcelona. For most, this game was meant to be a formality as the Catalan club eased through to the semi-finals, a stage of the competition Barcelona have good reason to call their own. For Dzeko, it was another chance to prove that he is more than just good enough. When the final whistle blows, he is a Champions league semi-finalist, and no one can take that away from him.

He had scored two goals in two games against one of the world’s best clubs, and the fanatical Italian fans go wild. It is a new high in the career of one of Europe’s best strikers, and even in that hysteria, you won’t have Dzeko believe he’s peaked.

And yet, it was often said to him – “I just do not think that you are good enough.”

But pray, why?

Edin Dzeko was the second leading goalscorer in the Bundesliga season when him and Grafite led a mid-table destined VfL Wolfsburg to the league title. He also scored a stupendous 39 goals last season for Roma when he broke the record held by none other than Francesco Totti, and he was part of the Manchester City team that won two league titles. It would be incorrect to label Edin Dzeko an underdog, for an underdog has his fans and believers that cheer for him through everything – for Dzeko, it was always the case to prove that he was better than everyone thought he was, even in the midst of laurels, wreaths and medals.

Fighting against the odds came naturally to Dzeko. It was something he grew up with.

Growing up in the shadow of war

Many famous footballers of today have grown up in poverty, where football was the only escape from a life depraved of otherwise worldly pleasures that most of us take for granted. Take the case of Dzeko’s former teammate, for example – Sergio Aguero, who was very nearly not born due to complications in his delivery and had to share a small house with six siblings till he moved to Europe. It was football which made Aguero the man he is today, for his family earnt just barely enough to scrape through the day without starving.

But, the case of Edin Dzeko was far more complex. He did not grow up in total poverty, but he grew up in a place where the best years of his childhood life were spent seeing bombs dropped near his house. Dzeko was all of six years old when the Bosnian War began, an international armed conflict that ravaged the country of Bosnia for around three years and left a trail of savagery and torn families in its wake.

Born in Sarajevo, which was then a part of SFR Yugoslavia, Dzeko literally grew up in a place where violence was rampant, and peace an afterthought. It is tough to kick around a football in the backyard when that backyard itself might get blown up the next minute. Our formative childhood years were spent probably playing video games and enjoying outdoor time with our friends – for Dzeko, it was a matter of life and death.

War makes people change; it makes them more mature, for they have to adapt and learn, there is no other option if you want to survive. But the one thing that remained consistent for the Bosnian was his love for the game.

In an interview with the Guardian, Dzeko states that his passion for the beautiful game never left him. He adds that he never thought about becoming a big star, but he breathed football and he wanted to play it not for fame or money, but simply because there was nothing more pleasurable for him than to kick a ball around. He even spends his leisure time watching football; if a game is telecasted, and he is home, that’s his sanctuary.  One can even say that the war made Dzeko love the game more, for it was one of the few things that the boy hung on to during those dark times.

He’s lazy, he can never make it

As such, Dzeko played football a lot, so much so that he made it in one of his home country’s teams. The talent that he had was, however, not recognised by his first club, Željezničar – primarily due to the fact that he played as a midfielder, and could not quite succeed at that role. Despite a bad spell at his first club, Edin Dzeko’s potential was recognised by his coach who convinced Teplice (a Czech football club based in the city of Teplice which plays in the country’s first division) to buy him. Aged only 19 then, Dzeko was nicknamed “klok”, which roughly translates to ‘wooden log’. Tall and lanky and presumably a “lazy player”, this was only the beginning, the first time in his professional life where he was labeled to be below par. Years later, the directors of Željezničar even said that they considered selling Dzeko for €25,000 as winning the lottery – they were that happy to get rid of him.

Life sometimes plays out in funny ways. Robert Lewandowski was supposed to join Blackburn Rovers in 2010, when a volcanic ash cloud delayed his flight, and he ended up signing for Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund. Edin Dzeko, brushing off the dust from the warfields of Bosnia, had made it to one of Europe’s biggest leagues at a price his previous employers thought were some sort of lottery. By now, you’d think football has taught us enough for us to not underestimate it.

The final part can be found here.

Taha Memon

20 year old who likes everything black and white - especially football. Liverpool fan, aspiring journalist, comic enthusiast, and a TV show buff.