Despite a war hindering his early progress, Bosnia's Edin Dzeko has found goals and a title in Germany. He talks to Jonathan Wilson.
Lamp post shines at Wolfsburg
When Edin Dzeko arrived at Zeljeznicar, one of the two major teams of Sarajevo, at the age of 13, he was the object of some bewilderment. Bosnian footballers were supposed to be creative and technical and blessed with the Roadrunner-feet of a Hasan Salihamidzic; Dzeko was lanky and clumsy and, as countless coaches pointed out, looked like an English centre-forward. He was nicknamed "Kloc" - the local slang term for a lamp post or the pole that holds up a street-sign - and when the Czech side Teplice offered ?25,000 (Dh134,000) for him, as one director put it, "we thought we'd won the lottery".
But the Czechs, after years of watching Jan Koller leading the line for the national side, understood how to use a targetman, and after two successful years he was sold to Wolfsburg for ?4.7m. Three seasons and a Bundesliga title later, he is valued at around five times that. It is Wolfsburg, and particularly their previous coach, Felix Magath, who really elevated Dzeko, improving his fitness and making him a far more imposing presence. Magath left for Schalke 04 at the end of last season to be replaced by Armin Veh.
"Things have changed a lot," Dzeko said. "Veh is also a good man, but the last two years we've been doing a lot of training, and that kept us going to the last game when we were champions. Now we play more football. Under Magath we played more long balls." There were suggestions Dzeko was struggling to come to terms with the new approach, but three goals in his last two games suggest that any problems he was having adapting have been overcome, and he is back in form for the Champions League trip to Old Trafford. "Everybody says England is the perfect league for me with my style," Dzeko added, which makes tonight's game even more special for him than it would otherwise be.
"It will be something unbelievable to play Manchester United," Dzeko said. "It's a chance for me to play against some of the best defensive players in Europe, and I want to show that I can play on the big stage. I am a fan of AC Milan, but my big dream is to play in England." To say he is a targetman, though, under plays his ability. Dzeko is a fine header of a ball, holds the play up well, but he also has pace and, as 26 goals in 29 league games last season testifies, he can finish. His strength makes him the perfect foil for the more technical Brazilian forward Grafite, and the pair benefit from the intelligence and passing abilities of the Dzeko's compatriot playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic, who really is Bosnian in style.
Yet in every way other than playing style, Dzeko is a typical child of Sarajevo, having grown up in the city during the siege. "I was six when the war started," he said. "It was terrible. My house was destroyed so we went to live with my grandparents. The whole family was there, maybe 15 people all staying in an apartment about 35metres square. It was very hard. We were stressed every day in case somebody we knew died."
Football seemed a world away. "A lot of footballers start to play kicking a ball around in the street but for me that was impossible. But when the war finished I was much stronger, mentally. After the war I played with my friends in the streets, at school, then my father took me to Zeljeznicar." Their stadium lay on the front line and when the siege was finally lifted, the first thing players and officials had to do was to clear the pitch of mines.
Fans from the city, not surprisingly, find the 23-year-old easy to relate to, particularly as he shares the sense of hospitality for which Bosnia is famous. A Sarajevo journalist tells the story of having gone to Germany a couple of years ago to write a piece on the two Bosnian players at Hoffenheim. On his way back he and his photographer made a snap decision to drive to Wolfsburg to see Dzeko. Not only did he agree to a lengthy interview late that evening, but having tried to book them into a hotel and discovered that a VW conference meant there were no beds to be had anywhere in the vicinity, he gave them the keys to his flat and went to stay with his girlfriend.
When I spoke to him, Dzeko was called away from the interview after about 10 minutes by Bosnia's press officer. Given footballers usually take any opportunity to avoid speaking to the press, I confess I was not particularly confident that he would return, but he came back about quarter of an hour later. "Sorry about that," he said. "The prime minister turned up and I had to have my picture taken with him."
Which speaks not only of Dzeko's sense of responsibility, but also of what a major figure he is back in his homeland. That importance is enhanced by the fact he obviously thrives in tandem with Misimo-vic, a Bosnian Serb who was born in Munich and played for Serbia at youth level. There has been much talk of the new sense of unity within Bosnian football since Ciro Blazevic became coach 18 months ago: the Dzeko-Misimovic partnership is an example of that in action.
"We've played two years together in the national team and also at Wolfsburg, so I know him and he knows me," Dzeko said. "He's a very good technical player and he's very clever, and for every striker it's important to have somebody behind like him. He's a good passer and if you make a run he always sees it. He's been very important for me, for the national team and for Wolfsburg. Ciro Blazevic has brought this team all together. Whether I am Muslim or Croat or Serb it's no problem. But for me it was never a problem if somebody was Serb, Croat or Muslim. What is important is whether they are a good man."
And that is why he is not just a fine player, but an icon of Bosnia's future. email@example.com Man Utd v Wolfsburg, KO 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +3