The Best American Player at the World Cup Has Already Gone Home
Vedad Ibiševic escaped Bosnia, but now plays for his home country after his adopted one did not attempt to recruit him.
Photo via Radio-Canda.ca
The sky had begun to pale shortly after kickoff, but it's unlikely anyone inside the banquet hall noticed.
A few miles away, Adam Wainwright was shutting down the Phillies in front of a sellout crowd, but for these 90 minutes at least, the best fans in St. Louis weren't baking in the heat at Busch Stadium. They were here, crowded in front of a projector screen inside Grbic Banquet Center, and packed into other bars and restaurants across the city's south side. They wore blue, not red, and the names on the backs of their jerseys might have given much of Cardinal Nation sore tongues: Bicakcic. Džeko. Spahic. Ibiševic.
War and economic ruin drove millions of Bosnians from their homes in the 1990s, and tens of thousands of them ended up in St. Louis, directed by U.S. State Department resettlement efforts and drawn by the low cost of living. Some 10,000 refugees were officially resettled here between 1992 and 2000, according to the Brookings Institution, but today an estimated 70,000 Bosnian-Americans reside in the St. Louis metro area, making this unassuming Midwestern city home to the largest concentration of Bosnian emigrants in the world.
If there is a heart of the St. Louis Bosnian community, it is surely not far from Grbic, a cavernous 12-year-old restaurant and event space just off the half-mile stretch of Gravois Avenue known as Little Bosnia, traditional dishes from across Eastern Europe cooking in its kitchen and flags both Bosnian and American hanging from its patterned stone walls. And it was here, on a hot and inauspicious Saturday afternoon, that 150 or so gathered to watch Bosnia-Herzegovina suffer a tense and heartbreaking loss to Nigeria, completing an unexpectedly early exit from its first World Cup.
In a tournament that has seen defending champions Spain swiftly defenestrated and the English sent home with fewer points than ever—to say nothing of a certain last-minute gut punch in Manaus—Bosnia's failure ranks as one of the lesser disappointments, but a disappointment all the same. It wasn't supposed to be like this for the Zmajevi, the Dragons, who topped their group in European qualifying and were sure to outplay Nigeria and Iran to emerge from Group F as runners-up to the mighty Argentina. It wasn't supposed to be like this for Bosnia, a young nation just beginning to recover from devastating spring floods that have quite literally dug up the past in the form of land mines and mass graves.
An opening loss to Argentina did little to change expectations, as the Dragons limited the damage done by Lionel Messi well enough and slipped a late goal through the legs of Argentinian keeper Sergio Romero. Nowhere were the cheers louder for the goalscorer, Stuttgart striker Vedad Ibiševic, than in St. Louis. It was Vedo, as they call him, who had scored the goal that sent the Zmajevi to Brazil—and it was this very community that had helped pay his way back to Bosnia when he was first called up to the youth national team ten years ago.
But against Nigeria last Saturday, the crowd at Grbic watched things slowly fall apart. A criminal offside call robbed the Dragons of a first-half goal from Edin Džeko, and minutes later, Nigeria's Peter Odemwingie put the Super Eagles on top. Ibiševic, again relegated to a substitute role in manager Safet Sušic's conservative 4-5-1, came off the bench only to send a free header well over the crossbar, and Džeko missed a pair of chances in stoppage time to seal the defeat.
Shocked, this seemingly remote regiment of the Armija Zmajeva began to file out of the hall into a quintessentially Midwestern afternoon, a warm breeze and clouds the color of charcoal rolling in from the west.
Though it was partially by chance that so many Bosnians landed in this American city and not another, it was a happy accident in at least one way: the history of soccer in St. Louis is richer than perhaps anywhere else in the United States, and tied closely to its deeply Catholic roots. The clubs and leagues founded by the city's Irish and Italian immigrants in the late 19th century were mostly parish-based—a less fraught context for an alien sport than the labor unions and ethnic clubs that comprised its early base elsewhere in the U.S. Even as the country at large began to neglect the World's Game in the new century, a robust amateur and semi-pro scene in St. Louis thrived. When the Americans famously upset England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup, five St. Louisans were on the field, four of them natives of the historically Italian-American neighborhood known as The Hill.
As the city, and the Catholic Church, expanded westward, soccer followed, and as in other parts of the country its center of gravity shifted gradually from working-class and immigrant communities to the middle- to upper-class suburbs where the sport developed the youth-oriented, minivans-and-orange-slices image that persists to this day. In recent decades, the Catholic prep academies of St. Louis' affluent West County have yielded a steady crop of USMNT bit parts and also-rans, each of them whiter and more forgettable than the last: Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan, Chris Klein, Brad Davis, Tim Ream.
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Davis and Ream, like many other local standouts, eventually passed through Saint Louis University, which has faded somewhat from its '60s heyday but endures as a mid-major powerhouse and stepping stone to MLS and elsewhere. It was at SLU that Fulham and USMNT legend Brian McBride began his career, setting school records with 72 goals and 40 assists in 89 appearances as an undergraduate.
But though McBride rates as one of the greatest American players ever, he is arguably no longer the best to emerge from SLU. Nor does an alumnus of the area's elite Catholic prep schools qualify as its best soccer product. Both distinctions may now belong to a player who graduated from the troubled St. Louis Public Schools system and starred for the Billikens for just one season before French giants Paris Saint-Germain came calling: a Bosnian forward named Vedad Ibiševic.
As the wars in the Balkans escalated in the early nineties, Serbian ultranationalists began to recruit paramilitary forces from an all too natural source: the Delije, the name given to a notoriously violent bloc of supporters' clubs loyal to Red Star Belgrade, Serbia's most popular soccer club. "The Delije," wrote a Serbian reporter, "have left their supporters' props somewhere under the arches of Marakana Stadium and have set off to war with rifles in their hands." Arkan's Tigers, as they were dubbed after the gangster who led them, sang Red Star chants as they marched to war in Bosnia, where they committed some of the war's most horrific acts of mass murder, torture, and rape as part of the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims.
The Tigers were not present in the village of Pijuke on May 8, 1992, when Vedad Ibiševic's grandfather and ten other Bosniaks were murdered, but others like them were. Others like them were present in the town of Vlasenica weeks later, when a 7-year-old Vedad and his sister hid from soldiers in a two-foot-deep hole their mother had dug in the woods behind their home. Others like them were in Višegrad, Prijedor, Doboj, and Srebrenica. By far the bloodiest of the Yugoslav Wars, the three-year-long conflict in Bosnia claimed the lives of 60,000 fighting men and 40,000 civilians, the vast majority of them Bosnian Muslims, and further displaced some 2.2 million people.
Among the uprooted were the Ibiševic. They fled the house in Vlasenica Vedad's father had built with his own hands, first into the woods to escape the Serb death squads, then north to the relative safety of the city of Tuzla, then to refugee camps in Switzerland, and finally, to St. Louis. By the time they arrived here in 2000, the war had been over for five years. The local Bosnian community had reached a critical mass: 25,000 strong and growing rapidly as friends and family members flocked to Little Bosnia from both outside of and elsewhere in the country.
Vedad, now 16, had already shown enough talent to have signed with Swiss club FC Baden during his family's brief stay in Switzerland, but though fate had delivered him to one of the sport's spiritual homes in the U.S., he found himself on the outside of the city's soccer establishment looking in. For decades, the Metro Catholic Conference and its Big Five—all private, suburban, all-boys prep schools—have produced nearly all of the region's best players. They play on pristine fields tucked into large, wooded campuses, draw big crowds and coverage in the local paper, and from there earn spots on elite club teams and scholarships to top universities.
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In stark contrast stood Roosevelt High School, where Vedad, who spoke hardly any English, enrolled in 2000. "By nearly every yardstick," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would write a few years later, Roosevelt "is the problem child in a district that itself is troubled." Gang violence had plagued the school for years, and an influx of young Bosnian refugees didn't help. Only 38 percent of Vedad's classmates graduated with him in 2002. In the Public High League, where he starred for the Roosevelt Rough Riders in his junior and senior years, resources were scarce, facilities modest, and soccer an afterthought.
He played his way to a scholarship to SLU anyway, earning All-American and Freshman of the Year honors, and leading the Billikens to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. Having already impressed in call-ups to the Bosnian U-21s, he signed with PSG soon thereafter, beginning a club career that would also take him to Dijon, 1899 Hoffenheim, and VfB Stuttgart, where he has played since 2012. With more than 80 career goals in the German Bundesliga and another 21 in international competition, Vedad is not just the most successful SLU alum playing pro soccer today—he is perhaps the best product of the NCAA system, period.
And yet for all that he's been through and all that he's achieved, curiously little attention has been paid to Vedad over the years in the city where his career began, and where his parents and sister still live. Last year a St. Louis Magazine article called him "the greatest local soccer player you don't hear enough about," noting that his name had appeared the Post-Dispatch eight times in the previous six years. Even as Bosnia came to town for a World Cup tune-up on May 30, training at SLU on the same fields Vedad had roamed a decade earlier, local St. Louis media focused largely on "hometown hero" Brad Davis, an MLS stalwart whose surprise trip to Brazil will likely amount to a quiet spot start against Germany and not much else.
Sure, the lack of regard is to some extent a failure on the part of St. Louis, a fractious and segregated city long before the first Bosnians arrived. When the Dragons played an exhibition match at Busch Stadium last November, an ugly backlash ensued over the crowd's use of the flares that are traditional to soccer fandom in Eastern Europe.
But it's a fault line that runs through American soccer culture at large. Fans of the USMNT love to shake their fists at players like Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic, who snubbed the U.S. to pursue international careers with more distinguished sides, and—often in the next breath—question the motives and commitment of dual nationals like Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson who made the opposite choice. You hear much less about Vedad Ibiševic, a world-class attacker who in 2008 told the New York Times that he likely would have accepted a U.S. call-up if he had ever been approached.
It's certainly tempting to imagine what the USMNT might have been capable of in the last few qualifying cycles with Vedad in place of Robbie Findley or Chris Wondolowski. But it's more important to ask whether or not this bit of history will repeat itself. In a sport that is increasingly not only global but globalized, in a country that can and must draw strength from its ethnic and cultural diversity, is enough being done to offer players like Vedad in communities like Little Bosnia the same opportunities they've previously only been able to find halfway across the world?
Early returns in the Jürgen Klinsmann era offer some encouragement. Much has been made of the stepped-up recruitment of foreign-born players at the senior level, but it's the slow, seismic remaking of the American youth system—a shift away from pay-to-play leagues in tony suburbs and the constraints and exclusivity of college soccer—that will likely determine the course the USMNT will take in the next decade and beyond. The Generation Adidas program, the emergence of a robust MLS academy system and the league's Homegrown Player Rule, and an aggressively expanded USSF scouting operation all add up to a development network with fewer cracks through which talented young players can slip through—particularly those, like Vedad, who were seemingly overlooked for all the wrong reasons.