The rise and rise of 'perfect player' Edin Dzeko
Published 12/11/2015 | 02:30
There was a time when the star of Bosnian football had a face and figure which did not fit.
Edin Dzeko was no child prodigy. In his formative days with Zeljeznicar, a popular club in the capital city Sarajevo, the teenager was viewed as a tall and skinny player who didn't have much else about him.
They called him 'kloc', a slang term commonly used to refer to a lamp-post or a wooden stick. Dzeko was compared to Peter Crouch, a view borne from the belief that size was the most notable thing about the 6ft 4in player, although it took a while for him to be considered as a target man with part of his education coming as a midfielder.
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His career path changed because of a Czech coach named Jiry Plisek who identified his raw potential. When Plisek ended up back in his homeland, he convinced new employers Teplice to shell out €25,000 to bring Dzeko to fresh surroundings. The story of the Zeljeznicar hierarchy's delight at receiving that amount has been well told at this stage. It is a tale where the punchline is obvious, given that Dzeko has gone on to become one of the foremost strikers in Europe and generate tens of millions in transfer fees.
Once he found his feet at Teplice, he showed enough to convince Wolfsburg boss Felix Magath to pay €4m for him in 2007. Two years later, he was instrumental in a charge for the Bundesliga title which climaxed in a stunning success that shocked Germany.
Dzeko's profile soared to another level, as his partnership with Brazilian Grafite had broken a goals record set by Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness. He was named in the 30-man long list for the Ballon d'Or and was on plenty of shopping lists around Europe. The all-round package was cited when big-spending Manchester City splashed out €32m in 2011.
"Edin is tall, strong and he scores a lot of headers," said his new boss Roberto Mancini. "But he can also play on the ground with both feet. He is the perfect player for us."
This is the point where opinions split on the Dzeko career graph. To some observers he was unlucky at City, cast as the 'supersub' when he deserved better given his impressive strike rate. He registered 50 goals in 130 league outings, a return that reads better when it's factored in that he came off the bench in 56 of those fixtures. That haul included important strikes too; in the final furlong of title wins in 2012 and 2014 he made telling contributions in vital encounters.
The alternative view is that he blew hot and cold and struggled to cope with being left out for games. He had a chequered relationship with Mancini and, while a Champions League trip to Munich will always be remembered for an irate Carlos Tevez refusing to warm up when asked to do so by the Italian, Dzeko was also in the bad books for throwing a strop when he was replaced. There was a belief that the arrival of Manuel Pellegrini would help his cause but the player's reputation for being a malcontent lingered and the arrival of Wilfried Bony in January signalled the beginning of the end.
Some of his former opponents expressed surprise at the sale, with Rio Ferdinand amongst them. "He's a top level player," he said last week. "I played against him at Wolfsburg too, and if the quality (crosses) come in he's hard to stop. He's big, strong, aggressive and he can finish. The best thing that Ireland could do is stop him at source. Just stop him getting it."
Bosnia have proved adept at getting him the ball, however, and Dzeko is their record scorer with 44 from 74 caps. There is pride in what the child of the war has achieved.
His rise to stardom made him a beacon of light for a country which has horror in its recent memory and retains complicated ethnic divisions and poverty. As a nine-year-old Dzeko's family had to flee their home in the suburbs of Brijesce and find refuge in a safe house. The kids his age would try and fit in a kickaround when it seemed there was a break in attacks from Serb forces that levelled parts of the city.
Football was an escape. Indeed, a rare highlight of that grim period was the power - which was usually gone - coming back 15 minutes into the 1994 World Cup final, allowing Dzeko and pals to watch Brazil beat Italy.
That's why, 20 years on, there was romance in the tale of Dzeko travelling to Rio de Janeiro last summer for Bosnia's first taste of a major tournament. Many of his team-mates were refugee children who grew up elsewhere after escaping the borders. Asmir Begovic, for example, was raised in Canada. To the diaspora, Dzeko's exploits were a source of inspiration. Three years ago, British journalist Ed Vulliamy penned a book about the survivors of the Bosnian concentration camps and detailed interviewing a gentleman named Asmir Selimovic who managed to get out of the hell in Srebrenica - where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) were massacred - and eventually found himself living in Missouri.
"When Dzeko scores, every Bosnian refugee in the world has scored with him," he said. "He is our example, he is our hope."
In his early 20s, Dzeko, who is a Bosniak, became a UNICEF ambassador and embraced responsibility to preach a message of inclusion.
"It doesn't matter to me if somebody is Serb, Croat or Muslim," he said. "A substantial portion of the population still consider themselves either Serb or Croat and their sporting loyalties fall in line with that."
However, while he will go down in history as a Bosnian icon, Dzeko has his detractors and the unifying World Cup experience concluded on a sour note which angered critics who feel that his effort levels on the pitch fall below the accepted standards. In fact, he was jeered during a friendly with Egypt in the lead-up to the competition.
When he was captured smiling in an exchange of shirts with Nigeria's Efe Ambrose in the aftermath of their contentious elimination from the competition, it became a big story.
Beforehand, prominent commentator Ivica Osim, the Bosnian that managed the old Yugoslavia to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, said that Dzeko should be more like Croatian duo Ivica Olic and Mario Mandzukic who "soaked their shirts in sweat" every time they were on national duty. His views carry weight and 'the smile' prompted a strong comment from daily newspaper Oslobodjenje who pointed out that while many Bosnians were crying in the early hours, "The idol of the nation, with a smile, went to exchange the shirt."
In August, before the late winning run that brought Mehmed Bazdarevic's charges to the play-offs, Osim was on the offensive again, arguing that the importance of Dzeko and his Roma colleague Miralem Pjanic was overstated.
That did prompt derision which served as a reminder that the worshippers outnumber the sceptics and it's certain that Dzeko's name will figure prominently in Irish preparations along with Pjanic.
The hosts are under huge pressure to deliver tomorrow night. Much of it will rest on the shoulders of the central figure in the process of putting this emerging football nation on the map.