Asmir Begovic doesn’t have many memories of Bosnia, the country of his birth. He was four when he and his family fled the southern town of Trebinje. The war had started. The machine-guns, the explosions, the bullet-holes. But fittingly, he does remember the impact it all had on his soccer.
“We got out at a good time but unfortunately were there for the beginning of everything,” Begovic said. “I used to play goalkeeper in my bedroom. It was for safety reasons because I wasn’t allowed outside.”
A child refugee, he used the upheaval as motivation. Before the war began, his father, Amir, had been a professional goalkeeper and his mother, Ajnija, was in law school. In an instant, everything changed. But Begovic absorbed it all and was heavily influenced by his parents’ attitude to the turmoil. The family moved to Germany where Amir worked in construction and Ajnija in a factory. Begovic, at a remarkably early age, figured out some principles that have since followed him throughout his personal and professional life.
“All the problems we had as a family taught me that if I stayed true to my beliefs and worked really hard, I’d overcome any difficulties I’d have in the future. That determination was instilled in me from very young and I went through things that many people never get to experience. Having to uproot my life two or three times, moving to different countries and continents made me grow up quicker than I should have and mature sooner, which helped me in the long run. It helped shape the person I am today and I take great pride in my past.”
The past is the reason why he’ll be competing at this summer’s World Cup.
In 1999, Begovic and his family relocated to Edmonton and three years later became Canadian citizens. He remembers the city vividly. “It was a little bit overwhelming. I didn’t know what to think. It was a new country, a new beginning. But it was filled with fun, easy-going people and once we settled in we really enjoyed life there.”
Quickly, he made friends and rapidly developed as a goalkeeper, his father proving an inspirational coach. He received a call-up to the Canadian Under-17 team. In early 2004, he went from writing his biology finals to a two-year contract with Portsmouth’s youth academy in a matter of days. Upon being granted a UK visa, Begovic was farmed out on loan to a number of lower-league English clubs like Macclesfield, Yeovil and Bournemouth. With his reputation on the rise, he represented Canada at the Under-20 World Cup in 2007. And then came a messy divorce.
“I went through every age group with Canada and it was a huge part of my development - getting to play at those different levels, traveling the world, playing against some good teams. But once I started getting into a professional setup, especially in England, I got to see how things were done the proper way. Every time I’d go back to Canada, something used to happen that I didn’t quite agree with or didn’t quite work for me. Going forward I just didn’t see the future being that great for Canadian soccer. I wasn’t sure if the people running it were the right people.”
In the summer of 2008, Begovic’s grandfather died. He traveled to Bosnia for the funeral, It was his first time back there since he had been forced to leave as a child. He met relatives and heard their stories, their struggles, their war. It was emotional. It was family. It was catharsis. Begovic knew what he had to do. He wanted to play for Bosnia. His decision was helped by what he saw as a slow-moving Canadian Soccer Association – the stewards for a national team program that has failed to qualify since making its lone World Cup appearance in 1986.
“There were plenty of opportunities for me to get capped by Canada at (the) senior level. I was called into a few squads and at the time I was committed to playing for Canada and the option of Bosnia never arose. I had been through the youth system with Canada, got called up to the senior team but I never played, After a while you start thinking to yourself, ‘What’s going on here? What’s the idea?’ People kept saying the right things but it never ended up happening. When the day came when I had to make a choice, I had to do right by myself. I don’t think people could’ve said anything differently – maybe they could’ve done differently. The words were there, the actions weren’t.”
Bosnia moved fast and Begovic made his international debut for them in late 2009. Unsurprisingly, many Canadian soccer fans were furious but Begovic was prepared for the criticism. It was the same criticism faced by players such as Owen Hargreaves and Jonathan DeGuzman, who bolted the CSA to play for other countries.
“You’re going to get a backlash and you can’t please everyone. I had to make a decision for myself and my family and I’ve gone the way I felt was best. I had to disappoint some people, anger some people and that’s the way it was. That’s their opinion, that’s their feeling and I can’t change that. I probably regret a few of my actions because sometimes you get pulled over by emotion and different things. I had loyalties in Canada and lived there for a good part of my life – a very important part of my life. It was difficult to leave that and move onto a different thing. People will think otherwise but sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have the choice.”
Begovic was an integral part of Bosnia’s World Cup qualification campaign as the team finished top of their group, losing once and conceding just six goals in 10 games. But in Brazil, making the knockout stages will be tough. They’ve been drawn in Group F alongside Argentina (one of the tournament favorites), Nigeria (the best team in Africa) and Iran (Asian outsiders).
Given its turbulent history, however, the fact Bosnia is at this World Cup at all is cause for celebration.
“It means everything to the country,’’ Begovic said. “All the years of pain and hurt that they’ve had, to now have such a positive thing and be on such a grand stage is fantastic for the country. It’s a very young country, it’s a small country with great people passionate about their country and us being able to deliver this for them was a huge motivation.”
For Bosnia, this World Cup is about more than football. It’s about struggle and toil and hard work and where you can get in life with grit, desire and talent. In Asmir Begovic, the country has the ideal poster boy.