Salihamidzic: a heartening success story
Where would Hasan Salihamidzic be today if he hadn’t escaped Sarajevo the day before it was besieged?
Jonathan WilsonJanuary 31, 2007 10:25 AM
Goodbyes are never easy. Some players vanish in the snapping of a ligament, others disappear in a puff of transfer window smoke, some linger too long, raging weakly against the fading of the light. Others announce their departure in advance, and enjoy what is effectively a farewell tour. At times that can rankle, but no one will begrudge Hasan Salihamidzic his protracted farewell from Bayern Munich as he prepares to join Juventus this summer.
His 30-year-old body weakened by two serious cruciate injuries, Salihamidzic may struggle to last a full 90 minutes these days, but this is a player once described by his former coach Ottmar Hitzfeld as “the life and soul of the team”. Yet it almost didn’t happen at all. Salihamidzic owes his career to a piece of extraordinarily fortunate timing 15 years ago.
He was brought up in Jablonica, about 30 miles east of Mostar on the road to Sarajevo. Every morning, he would get up at 6am and run for 90 minutes before school (although, if Frank Lampard is to be believed, that is de rigeur for would-be footballers). After classes, he practised the piano, and then caught a bus into Mostar to train with Velez. In 1991, he even took the prize for the best pupil in his elementary school with fives (the top grade) in every subject. He was, in short, one of those sickening people who are good at everything.
In April 1992, shortly after the EU had recognised Bosnia’s independence, Salihamidzic was called up to play for the Yugoslavia U-16s against the CIS. The squad was to meet in Belgrade on May 1, so, on April 30, Salihamidzic’s father, Ahmed, drove Hasan and his team-mate Vedran Pelic to Sarajevo to catch a plane to the Serbian capital. At Bradina, they were held up for four hours by a Serb check-point as soldiers sought assurances from the Yugoslav Football Federation that Salihamidzic’s invitation was genuine. By the time they reached Sarajevo, it was dark, but they hurried to the airport anyway, and caught the last flight that night. It was the last scheduled passenger flight to leave for four years; by the following morning, the city was besieged.
Unable to fly back from Belgrade after the game, Salihamidzic, Pelic and another Bosnian, Edis Mulalic, trained with Red Star, waiting for the situation back home to improve. After 10 weeks, as it became apparent that the siege was not going be lifted any time soon, they set out by land, returning to Bosnia through Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. Back in Jablonica, Salihamidzic began to work as a bartender, while his father desperately sought a club for him in western Europe.
Finally, thanks largely to the efforts of Ahmed Halilhodzic, who had been born in Jablonica before emigrating to Germany (his cousin Vahid Halilhodzic went on to coach Lille and PSG), Hamburg offered the Yugoslavia U-16 international youth terms.
It took three months to secure exit papers, after which Ahmed Salihamidzic put his son in a car to Zadar in Croatia, from where he took a bus to Hamburg. Ahmed Halilhodzic’s wife Djula was supposed to meet Salihamidzic at the bus-station, but when he arrived, he couldn’t see her. Gradually people drifted away, until he was left alone. Tired and frightened, he went to the bus station’s small caf, where, so intimidated he could barely speak, he whispered the only two words of German he knew: “Bitte limonade.” The waiter, though, could not understand him, so he tried again. “Bitte limonade.” “Pa tako mi reci brate!” (“So, speak to me, my brother!”) the waiter replied; he was a Bosnian Croat. It was an auspicious start.
Living first with Ahmed Halilhodzic and then in the club’s academy, Salihamidzic quickly settled, and, when he turned 18, was offered professional terms by Felix Magath, the famously hard taskmaster. Magath, of course, has since joined Salihamidzic at Bayern, and the bond between the two is obvious.
In those early days, though, the war continued to be a concern. “This coach, Magath, is really good,” he wrote to his parents. “He’s teaching me properly, but he never wants to talk to me. He never asks if I miss my family, how they’re getting on in the war… I miss my sister a lot, but also I miss my father’s criticism. He always knew what was best for me. I think a lot about my mother - I’m a mama’s boy. I can’t wait to see her, and to sit on her knee.”
In his first season as a professional, Salihamidzic played nine times for Hamburg, making his reputation with a stunning performance away to Eintracht Frankfurt on the final day of the season. Needing a victory to qualify for the Uefa Cup, Hamburg won 4-1, Salihamidzic scoring twice and setting up the other two. The following night, he was a guest on a chat show on ARD TV, who, unbeknownst to him, had sent a camera crew to Jablonica on the day of the game to interview his family. When Salihamidzic saw the piece, he began to cry; when, later, contact was made for a live link-up, he all but broke down.
“My son has three basic characteristics - hard work, ambition and a desire to progress,” Ahmed Salihamidzic said. “He has two faults: he’s too ambitious and he can’t stand to be beaten. When he’s lost a match, he switches his phone off for two or three days and nobody can talk to him. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s the reason he’s so successful.”
Successful he has undoubtedly been. Appropriately for the man who would become the footballing figurehead of his nation, he scored Bosnia-Hercegovina’s first goal as an independent nation (albeit in a 4-1 defeat). Since joining Bayern in 1998, he has won six league titles, four cups and a Champions League. The move to Italy feels like the beginning of the end, but he deserves his farewell tour.
Jonathon Wilson is the author of Behind The Iron Curtain: Travels In Eastern Europe. To order it, click here.