ST. LOUIS (CBS ST. LOUIS) — Despite being knocked out of contention by Nigeria last Friday, Bosnia’s first World Cup appearance has been a powerful experience for the country’s sports fans.
That sentiment rings especially true in St. Louis, where between 30,000 and 70,000 Bosnians call home. The city boasts the largest Bosnian community outside of Bosnia itself, many of whom have gathered over the past weeks for watch parties at spots like Amsterdam Tavern and Ballpark Village.
They’re cheering on the team and, particularly, Bosnian forward Vedad Ibisevic, who scored the country’s first-ever FIFA World Cup goal, and played for several years in St. Louis.
Ibisevic arrived in St. Louis from Switzerland in 2000, after his family fled war-ravaged Bosnia when he was just seven years old. The conflict killed more than 100,000 and turned half the country’s population into refugees—including Ibisevic and his family—between 1992 and 1995.
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In St. Louis, Ibisevic played at Roosevelt High School and then at Saint Louis University, where he scored 18 goals in 22 games.
Akif Cogo, who founded the nonprofit St. Louis Bosnians, played with Ibisevic at Roosevelt, and says he’s always been impressed by Ibisevic’s dedication to the sport.
“He was practicing through the middle of the day in August when no one even wanted to go outside their home in that St. Louis humidity and heat,” Cogo says. “In the end, obviously, it paid off for him.”
In a CBS St. Louis interview with Bill McDermott in December 2013, just months after Bosnia qualified for the World Cup for the first time, Ibisevic said the significance of the milestone went beyond just football and sports.
“Since the war, people didn’t really have that much to celebrate about,” he said. “I think this is the only thing that has happened since the war that people are happy about. That’s why it’s a great achievement for us as soccer players, but on the other hand, for these people it’s an amazing feeling and one big thing to be happy about.”
Ibisevic said he hoped the team’s success could help serve as a healing process for the country.
“We, as soccer players, this is the most we can do for our country, and we’re hoping that it’s going to help our country get better,” Ibisevic said. “It’s been 20 years since the war and it’s gotten better, but it’s still a long way to go and we’re all hoping that our success is going to help it a little.”
Cogo says the local community has rallied around the fact that many members of the Bosnian national team played for the youth soccer teams of different countries, including Ibisevic, Asmir Begović (Canada), and Miralem Pjanic (Luxembourg), yet they opted to play for Bosnia in the World Cup.
“Many consider that a huge level of patriotism,” Cogo says. “It shows a sense of unity that they had and team strength that they opted to play for Bosnia. Many are displaced from the war and returning to their own homeland, and there’s a huge significance in that. A lot that was taken from Bosnia, and this means so much to everyone who was forcibly displaced from Bosnia.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina faces off against Iran at 11 a.m. CST Wednesday, but their previous two losses (2-1 against Argentina and then 1-0 to Nigeria) mean they won’t advance past the group stage.
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