Monday 19 August 2019

Dion Fanning meets Asmir Begovic: From war torn Bosnia to Stamford Bridge

A nomadic childhood has strengthened Asmir Begovic's links to Bosnia-Herzegovina

Asmir Begovic says play-off will be ‘two tough games between two good teams’
Asmir Begovic says play-off will be ‘two tough games between two good teams’

Dion Fanning

Asmir Begovic is running early. The interview had been scheduled for 1.30 last Monday but half an hour before that he walks in to the Surrey hotel where our meeting had been arranged.

Footballers aren't usually early and Begovic is almost apologetic, as if he has somehow been unhelpful, while he explains that he allowed more time than he should have for the short journey from Chelsea's training ground to the hotel in Cobham. He then offers to get coffee or tea and those who have a one-dimensional view of footballers would be baffled.

Some might take this as evidence that Begovic is not an ordinary footballer but the things that have made his life truly extraordinary are of much greater weight.

These are not ordinary times for any Chelsea player but if anyone is capable of seeing the long view it is probably Begovic. This week he will return to Bosnia, a country he left as a small boy but which he becomes more entwined with as he gets older and becomes more aware of what his family endured and what they gave up to give him a better life.

Chelsea's Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic makes a save during the UEFA Champions League football match Dynamo Kiev vs Chelsea, on October 20, 2015 at the Olympic stadium in Kiev. AFP PHOTO / GENYA SAVILOVGENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images
Chelsea's Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic makes a save during the UEFA Champions League football match Dynamo Kiev vs Chelsea, on October 20, 2015 at the Olympic stadium in Kiev. AFP PHOTO / GENYA SAVILOVGENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Begovic was born in Trebinje, a small city in Herzegovina but his parents left the country when he was four, surrendering a decent life for one of uncertainty. He was too young to remember much but as he talks about the time when things changed irreversibly, he snaps his fingers. "Your life sort of gets ripped apart," he says.

He had a comfortable life before war came. His father was a professional footballer, his mother was training to be a lawyer and Asmir and his brother went to a nice school and lived in a nice house. But the conflict destroyed all that and they headed for Germany.

"It wasn't a very difficult decision, it was just what had to be done to guarantee a better life," he says. "Unfortunately when you're in those war-type situations nothing is guaranteed and things look very bleak and you just want to have the best possible life for your family, and a safe one. For them, it wasn't a difficult decision - it's just everything that comes with it, uprooting a family, that becomes very difficult."

They moved to Germany and tried to rebuild. "Next second you're gone," he reflects, thinking about how it all changed. "You go to a country where you don't know the language, you don't know anyone there, you don't know what it's like to live there or any way of life. My parents had it very, very difficult. We got used to it after a while, moving to different countries and different places but initially it was very difficult for us."

He has talked to his parents about these times but as he has got older, and become a parent himself, he has developed a greater appreciation of the sacrifices they made.

After six years in Germany, the family moved to Canada. Begovic represented the country at underage level but he always wondered what he would do if Bosnia-Herzegovina called. He had been brought up as Bosnian.

Asmir Begovic was thrown in at the deep end against Swansea
Asmir Begovic was thrown in at the deep end against Swansea

In the Begovic house, the Bosnian "way of life and tradition was first and foremost", he says, even if his accent and figures of speech tell of the time spent in Edmonton. They adapted to Germany, made friends and his parents live there now. It was the same in Canada but there was a pull towards Bosnia.

"It was always something that was in the back of my mind. I'd spoken to my father numerous times about it, 'What would we do? What are we going to do? Is it ever going to come? Is it not going to come?' You're unsure whether the possibility will come because you don't make these decisions."

When Bosnia did call, it was shortly after he had returned there for his grandfather's funeral, which reminded him of all that tied him to the place. He knew it was the right decision but his understanding of the country has become more profound since he became a full international. The squad is made up of players who have stories of turmoil and loss.

"We've all had families who've struggled through war and different experiences so we have a lot of motivation to really do well. That's really the special atmosphere we have within the national team. We all have different upbringings and different countries and all our families were split apart from Bosnia. We come back together for one joint goal and it's pretty cool to be part of that."

Last summer, Bosnia-Herzegovina qualified for their first World Cup. The country rejoiced and Begovic says there is motivation for the players in knowing that what they achieve brings such happiness to the people. "It's a great motivation of ours to be able to cheer them up a little bit and bring more positive energy and show Bosnia in a better light."

He looks back on the World Cup as a positive experience. Bosnia opened their tournament with a game against Argentina in the Maracanã. They lost 2-1 and Nigeria ended their hopes of moving beyond the group stage with a victory in their next game. They ended their tournament with a win over Iran but, for a country like Bosnia, there was only pride and a greater understanding of what was required in tournaments.

What followed was, in some ways, predictable. Begovic calls it a "World Cup hangover" as they began this campaign by losing at home to Cyprus. Two months later, a 3-0 loss in Israel left them with two points from four games. Suddenly the play-offs were their best hope but it looked unlikely.

There were a lot of factors in the slump, he says. They brought in new players, the coach tried different things and there was also the problem of motivation. A couple of months after playing in the Maracanã, they were back in the humdrum, facing Cyprus in Zenica.

"We probably underestimated them a little bit," Begovic says. "We didn't prepare for things in the right way. We played players who maybe needed to be brought in a little bit later and we should have kept more senior guys, there were so many issues that contributed to it, it never is just one thing."

It never is just one thing. It's a credo which could be applied to Chelsea who are suffering their own slump. Begovic can take a long-term view by appreciating that football can change very quickly, that a couple of good results at club level could change perceptions.

"That's what football is, it's a very short-term game. A couple of things go your way and you start getting a couple of results together. You get a good feeling, and it goes from there really. It snowballs one way or the other. When it goes in a negative way, you've got to keep working hard to turn it around and you sort of need that plug to make that happen."

He says it won't be difficult to adapt to the national side after the different pressure at Chelsea. He also doesn't see it, in football parlance, as offering a respite from his club. "They are different challenges. I've been in the opposite position when things are going well for the club but not so well for the national team. It's the way it is. You have to show the character, and the mental toughness that comes with it. You go from one vibe to the next, and one atmosphere to the other. It's something you get used to, especially with the atmosphere you have. It's not very difficult to go from one to the other."

There were different expectations too when he moved from Stoke to the champions but he wanted those challenges.

"At first, it's a bit, 'What's everyone like, am I going to fit in?' but for me it wasn't that difficult. I know the language, I've been around the game long enough. I've fitted into the group pretty well. They've made me really welcome and easy to fit in. It's a very easy-going group of guys. From that point of view, it's very simple. But yeah, it's different of course. Different characters. Different expectations. It's the sort of thing you need to get used to pretty quick."

Bosnia-Herzegovina's form since last November provides an example of how quickly things can change. A key factor was the replacement of coach Safet Susic with Mehmed Bazdarevic. Bosnia won five of their last six games in the group to claim a play-off place ahead of Israel.

They have had bad experiences in play-offs against Portugal in 2009 and 2011 but where once they thought 'anything but a play-off', this time it became a prize.

Now they will face Ireland and Begovic will see some old friends. When he moved from Canada to Portsmouth as a teenager, one of his loan spells took him to Ipswich. He recalls Roy Keane fondly, expressing huge admiration for the way he worked and what he demanded from his players. If some struggled with it, Begovic didn't, enjoying instead the idea that Keane was making the same demands of a Championship side that he would of a Champions League team.

A year after his loan at Ipswich, Stoke bought Begovic from Portsmouth and he established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. He had been at Portsmouth with Marc Wilson and knew Jon Walters from Ipswich but he got to appreciate them a lot more at his new club. He isn't surprised that Walters has been so central to most of Ireland's good performances in this campaign.

"He's one of those guys who never lets you down, his work-rate is unbelievable, and his quality and skill-sets are sometimes undervalued too. People don't give him the credit for the goals that he scores and the contribution he makes. He's a top player and proved himself at Premier League level a long time. He knows where the goal is, he gets himself in the right positions and he's just really reliable, and that's the thing a lot of teams and managers like about him."

11 October 2015; Glenn Whelan, Republic of Ireland, in action against Robert Lewandowski, Poland. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Poland v Republic of Ireland. Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw, Poland. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Glenn Whelan, he says, is a player who is more appreciated by his team-mates than some of those watching from outside.

"To the naked eye, and the uneducated football fans, it's difficult for them to understand his role, but he keeps the team ticking over. He's the guy who is the disciplined one, who'll sit in front of the back four, do the dirty work that people don't appreciate at times. He's made a whole career out of that and that's why he's been so valuable to teams."

Ireland - without the suspended Walters - will have to cope in Zenica, the small town and intimidating stadium where Bosnia-Herzegovina prefer to play. "It's a joy to play there," Begovic says, but part of the joy comes from the uncomfortable atmosphere for opponents.

He watched Ireland beat Germany and thinks it will have reminded his team-mates of the challenge ahead. "It was good for everyone else to see, 'Hey, we're in for a tough game'. Let's not over-think this, or think we're favourites or anything like that. It's going to be two tough games, two very good teams, so I think it was good for our people to get back down to earth a little bit and know we're in for a tough task."

Begovic doesn't mind challenges. For years, he had been linked with the biggest clubs in England and in the summer he left Stoke for Chelsea, despite the presence of Thibaut Courtois at the club.

"I've never shied away from a challenge," he says. "I enjoy it, I think it's important to challenge yourself in the game. I was very comfortable at Stoke. My family was very comfortable, my situation at the club was very comfortable, and I feel like I needed something to get me going again. That's the decision I made. I took the biggest challenge, the biggest option, the biggest club, the biggest pressure, and it's something I normally feed off. So, I enjoy that. So far it's been challenging, but it's what football is all about."

After all he and his family endured as they searched for better and peaceful times, Asmir Begovic might think it's what life is all about.

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