As originally featured on This Football Times, Lewis Steele charts the rise of Edin Džeko from the war-torn Sarajevo to the top of the footballing ladder.
The story of most world-class footballers starts on a local park, where the future star would spend hours a day kicking a ball around with friends from an early age. The standard edition is usually a case of something along the lines of: “he would rise with the sun and play football until the sun set at night”. A scout would spot the player and sign them up for the city’s top academy, where the kid would ease their way through the ranks of the academy setup and eventually make their name in a prestigious first team.
But, for Edin Džeko, it was different. The land the Bosnian spent his days on was worlds away from a fancy park with flat, even playing turf and an expensive ball. In fact, the park that Džeko mastered the techniques and traits that saw him work his way up the footballing ladder was in the centre of a war torn Sarajevo, which was populated with a rare blade of unharmed grass and a ball only in shape, rather than the average football that you can buy over the counter in a sports shop.
Many footballers have stories of tough beginnings to life and how they have been inspired— but this is the story of Edin Džeko’s meteoric rise from the minefields of Yugoslavia to the pinnacle of European football, where he has cemented his name as one of the most prolific strikers of the past decade or so.
For most of the formative years of Džeko’s upbringing, his hometown Sarajevo was a heavily targeted area for ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations by the Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian War, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, and left a devastating trail of savagery and broken families in its wake.
Known as ‘The Siege of Sarajevo’, the siege was the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, as the Bosnian capital was attacked by forces of the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’.
During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed the suit of other states and declared independence. The Bosnian Serbs had the strategic goal of creating a new Bosnian-Serb state known as Republika Srpska. They encircled Sarajevo with a siege force of more than 13,000, assaulting the city with artillery, tanks and other arms.
In the years of the war, nearly 14,000 people were killed, including over 5,000 civilians. Edin Džeko and his family lived in the middle of Sarajevo, so the sound of bombs and explosions were not rare.
Luckily, the Džeko family survived, but that didn’t prevent the events having a long lasting negative affect both physically and psychologically.
The family home of the Džeko’s was destroyed in this period, along with 35,000 other homes in the city. They had to move between substandard homes, if they could be described as ‘homes’, probably better described as a living space secured with not much more than a door diseased with bullet holes from the conflict, with no more than one meal per day.
Edin Džeko is tough, with a strong mentality. What was going on outside wouldn’t stop him from expressing his passion: football.
At the time of Džeko’s birth, Yugoslavia was becoming one of the powerhouses of football. The national team reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, to be knocked out by Argentina led by the great Diego Maradona, whilst Red Star Belgrade won the 1991 European Cup. Shortly after this, however, the conflict started as the Yugoslav army went to war with separatist Croatia, before Bosnian Serbs aimed to remove all other ethnicities from their land.
Sport as we know it today was virtually rendered into non-existence, especially in a competitive sense. There were no organised matches or tournaments to watch, as the war plagued leisure activities in Bosnia. This did not affect one thing: passion. The people loved sport, especially football, and Edin Džeko was no exception to this.
Bosanki Dijamant, which translates to ‘The Bosnian Diamond’, spent a large majority of his childhood kicking a ball of rolled up duct tape around the war torn surroundings in his hometown.
His mother, Belma, was skeptical of the idea of her young son being on the streets, but conceded that for Edin, the only way to disconnect from the tragic conflict was for him to follow his dreams and play football.
Despite this, one day Belma refused and told her son that he must not leave the house on that day. She made the right call. That day, the field and area where the future Bosnian captain played, was bombed and all but destroyed.
The kids of today perhaps take their upbringings for granted, if you compare them to Džeko and other children of Sarajevo. The modern childhood probably consists of days playing video games and spending some time outside with friends. For Džeko, however, it was a matter of life and death – it is hard to play in a field that may be blown up the next minute.
These harrowing experiences never thwarted Džeko’s dream: to be a footballer. He never dreamt of being the star that he is today, he never thought about the fame, he never considered the money he could one day make. For Džeko, it was the simple fact that he lived and breathed football and he wanted to express his ultimate passion.
Often in life, bad experiences shape us. The war helped Džeko mature at such a young age – he had to, there was no other option if he wanted to survive. Football was one of the few things Džeko had in his tarnished childhood, so if anything, the war grew his love for the beautiful game that he has become a master of.
Džeko continued to follow his dreams and just after the war, was signed up by his first professional club, FC Željezničar Sarajevo. The name Željezničarmeant ‘railway worker’, originating from the group of railway workers who established the club in 1921. Finally, it looked as though Džeko had made his break in professional football and completed his dream.
Sadly, however, it didn’t work out for Džeko at the most successful club in modern day Bosnia. Fans and journalists close to the club described Džeko as ‘klok’, a slang word that best translates as (wooden) ‘log’ in English. Despite his childhood idol being Andriy Shevchenko, Džeko played as a midfielder in his early days. He was too tall and his lanky structure meant he struggled, as he lacked the technical abilities needed to thrive as a creative player. He was labeled lazy and told he was not cut out to be a professional footballer.
To succeed, he had to move – both playing position and country. And so he did. In 2005, Džeko moved to Czech Republic club FK Teplice for the fee of €25,000. Years later, one of the Željezničar directors claimed this fee felt like their club had “won the lottery”. After two good goal-scoring seasons in the Czech leagues, Džeko was signed for VFL Wolfsburg by Felix Magath for a €4m fee.
During his time at Wolfsburg, Džeko was part of one of the most historic seasons in German history, playing a huge role as Die Wölfewon their first ever Bundesliga title in 2008/09. Along with Brazilian Grafite and fellow Bosnian Zvjezdan Misimović, Džeko completed what was known as the ‘magisches Dreieck’, or‘magic triangle’, as the trio led Magath’s side to unprecedented glory.
The next season, Džeko scored 22 goals and won the golden boot in the Bundesliga. After years of struggling to impress professional scouts and coaches in his homeland, Džeko was thriving in Germany. He left his comfort zone and excelled – all those hours in the minefields of Sarajevo paid off, as Džeko looked like a natural born finisher with predator-like instinct of when to pop up in the box.
The Volkswagen Arena was the first place where Džeko truly played with no pressure and for this, he molded into a top striker.
His ex coach at Željezničar, Jiří Plišek, said: “I met him [Džeko] for the first time in 2003 when I started to coach Željezničar. He was 17 and amazingly no one saw him as any kind of talent, but I saw his gift.”
Sadly, this has been one of the themes running through the career of The Bosnian Diamond: many do not appreciate him for what he is and many do not notice or appreciate his vast array of talent – almost a case of, to quote teenagers going through high-school breakups, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it’.
That was the case for fans of his next club, Manchester City. In the Premier League,Džeko was often viewed as ‘good, but not great’, and would almost certainly feature in a fantasy XI made up solely of ‘super-subs’. In Manchester, Džeko played a huge role in two title wins for City under Roberto Mancini and then Manuel Pellegrini.
The first time round, Džeko was the prequel to the Agüero-ooooo goal, where his header leveled the score before Argentinian Sergio Agüero scored the most memorable goal in Premier League history to win his side their first league title in a whopping forty-four years. Three seasons later, Džeko played a pivotal role in City’s 13/14 title win, scoring 26 goals despite often playing second fiddle to the partnership of Sergio Agüero and Alvaro Negredo. Again, Džeko will often be secondarily cited as a reason for City’s success, instead many will note the brilliance of Yaya Touré’s heroics or Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate slip against Chelsea.
Džeko turned down the opportunity to play for the national teams of countries he played in, such as the Czech Republic and Germany. Instead, whenever he wins a trophy, as he did plenty of times in the sky blue of Manchester City, he drapes himself in the blue and yellow flag of Bosnia, grasping the flag aloft with the same pride as he held high the iconic Premier League trophy two times.
Now, Džeko is a dime of Bosnia. When he scores a goal for the national team, it represents much more than a goal to add to the score-sheet: it is a goal for every Bosnian that went through physical and mental pain in the 90’s; it is a goal for peace; it is a dedication to all those that were not as fortunate as Edin Džeko to survive and become a sporting great, or a national icon.
Muhamed Jonjić, ex-defender and first ever captain of the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team in 1995, speaks extremely fondly of Džeko: “We see him rise through all that and make his global career, to become a great – a Bosnian great, a world great – but he stayed the same boy. Genuine, kind and straightforward – that’s the beauty of his greatness.”
Džeko kept his humble character despite being a superstar. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup that Bosnia qualified, which is another story in itself, Edin Džeko took part in a charity friendly to raise funds and awareness for floods that engulfed villages and cities in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, that caused damage beyond repair. Along with his other team-mates, Džeko and the Bosnia national team played against 100 children from families affected by the devastating floods.
That day, there was only one Edin Džeko, for obvious reasons, but on the pitch, every child tried to imitate their hero, by wearing shirts with ‘Džeko #9’ on the back and trying to play football in the style of their role model.
After seemingly conquering England and Germany before it, Džeko sought a new challenge, so moved to the eternal city of Rome, signing for AS Roma. Whilst the Bosnian has no Serie A titles to his name, his legacy will live on with the Giallorossias he won the golden boot with 29 goals in the league, and has been part of many famous nights in Rome.
It was indeed Edin Džeko that started the unforgettable comeback as his side ‘rose from their ruins’ in Rome to defeat the mighty Barcelona, who had a 4-1 advantage going into the second leg. His name will rarely be mentioned when talking about that day, as it is when discussing City’s title win in the last minute against Queens Park Rangers. This adds to the common theme that Džeko goes rather unnoticed in the wider footballing community, and is vastly underappreciated.
The story charting the journey of Edin Džeko is inspiring. It may not be the tale of a glittering career, dusted with Balon d’or’s and World Cup trophies, nor will Džeko go down as one of the best strikers to grace our leagues, but the story carries weight nevertheless.
It is the story of a boy, who kicked a ball around a park and went home at night not knowing if the park would be there the next day. It is the story of a Bosnian child who watched buildings and families be destroyed one by one alongside him, who went on to be a great. It is the story of how tragedy shaped ones passion and how a young man with a dream went on to represent his beloved Bosnia at a World Cup, despite having the chance to play for Czech or German national teams.
Edin Džeko will never be spoke about in the same breathe as the greats at his clubs. But, as the only player to have 50 or more league goals in England, Germany and Italy, he should be regarded as one of the most underrated players of his generation.
The war child from Sarajevo disproved the feeling that it was not possible to succeed from Bosnia as a sportsman, by clinging on to his love and passion for football at a time when there was little else to smile about. Džeko remained humble and rose from the depression of his house covered in bullet holes, to conquer three of the best leagues in the world.
As a story, Džeko’s career has a few chapters left yet. He isn’t a player that relies on pace. Instead he uses his ‘slow and lazy’ approach, which saw him sold by his first club FC Željezničar, to light up the biggest stages in world football. Thus, there is still life in the big Bosnian yet.
If you have learned one thing from this story, make it be: do not undermine or underrate the talent and character of Edin Džeko – he will continue to prove you wrong, just as he has done from a young boy through to becoming Bosnia’s greatest ever player and a prolific goal-scorer around the continent.