„Football is a matter more serious than life and death.“ When Semir Zilić talks about his love for FK Sarajevo, the quote by legendary football coach Bill Shankly reveals a truth that is both funny and tragic.
Semir Zilić was eight years old when he sent his father to war because the young boy did not want to miss the first derby game of his life. It was November 15, 1995 and Semir wanted to support FK Sarajevo playing their city rival FK Željezničar. The problem: The game was in the afternoon and he was supposed to be at school. „Just tell your teacher that you want to watch the game and it will be alright“, suggested his father. But at school Semir got scared that his teacher would not let him go. So he came up with a white lie instead. „I told my teacher that my father will be sent to the army the day after the match. She was very understanding and gave me the afternoon off so I could join my family for the farewell gathering,“ Semir says with a grin. A few hours later he was enjoying his first derby – sitting right next to his father who had no idea about his fake war deployment.
The legendary British football coach Bill Shankly once said: „Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.“ When Semir talks about his lifelong love for FK Sarajevo, Shankly’s quote reveals a truth that is both funny and tragic.
Since Semir’s white lie in school two decades ago, he has been a very loyal man. The 29-year-old has only missed two home games of his club and postponed his honeymoon because it conflicted with a game. „My wife is also a fan of FK Sarajevo. She knew what she was getting herself into,“ he says without remorse.
VIDEO: „Chosen by birth“ Semir about how he became a fan, what FK means to the city and the derby
Almost every day Semir takes his lunch break at the Damask shisha café hidden inside the old bazar in downtown Sarajevo and talks about football. The upcoming derby against FK Željezničar is only a few days away. Today, like usual, the computer programmer is enjoying a shisha pipe with apple flavour. Even though the sun is shinning, Semir prefers to sit inisde. He takes a puff, slightly turns his head and says with a touch of embitterment: „Schumacher. His name was Schumacher.“ Frank Schumacher, a German linesman, is the reason why FK Sarajevo did not win their first title after the war, Semir is convinced. In June 1998 FK Sarajevo played the last game of the season against Željezničar. Semir’s club was the better team that day and scored a regular goal towards the end of the game. But the German linesman ruled offside. Back to the start. One minute before the end of the game Željezničar got lucky, scored a goal from a counter attack and won the title. That’s football.
Puffing on his shisha pipe Semir recalls a thousand details like this one. Last year he finished a book about the history of FK Sarajevo. „In 2016 the club celebrated its 70th anniversary. I am very much into statistics and have collected a lot of data and information. So I decided to make a book out of it,“ he explains. The book contains many numbers and figures, stories about won championships and lost derbies. But to understand the place FK Sarajevo holds in Semir’s life and the city, a visit to FK Sarajevo’s Koševo stadium reveals much more than words and pieces of paper are able to describe.
Koševo cementary with graveyards from the war
Walking up Koševo street north from the city center, passing by graffitis of FK Sarajevo’s Ultras fang group „Horde Zla“ (Hordes of Evil), hundreds of white grave stones immediately are catching the eye. Many of these graves are the last resting place of Muslims who were killed during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 until 1996. „These new graveyards used to be training pitches,“ Semir says. „The club used to have about eight of them next to the stadium. Some have been transformed into graveyards.“
The white stones look like miniature obelisks, simple but elegant, and ironically bring a certain calm into this neighborhood full with traffic. Right next to the cementary, separated with just a rusty fence, amateur teams play matches and youth teams practice on the remaining pitches. Koševo stadium itself was damaged during the war and league football came to a halt during the siege of the city. But on March 20, 1994, while the war was still going on, 40,000 people came to Koševo to celebrate a moment of normality: FK Sarajevo played a match against a selection of soldiers from the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Semir remembers the game: „It was good to see that football was back again. There was an agrred truce during the game so nobody had to be afraid of sniper fire.“
No trophies, no euphoria. Only the derby draws more than 4,000 people to Koševo these days
In 2017, however, FK Sarajevo is far from drawing 40,000 people to Koševo. Over the last couple of years hardly more than 4,000 spectators attended a home game and the club is struggling with an aging infrastructure, bad management and lack of resources. „The quality of football has diminished all over the country. All good players try to leave as quick as they can,“ Semir deplores. He is afraid that the kids from players who spent most of their lives outside of Bosnia will lose their connection to the country entirely. „Just take Zlatan Ibrahimović. Even though he was not born here he still has a certain connection with Bosnia. But for his kids Bosnia will be just like any other country.“ A trend that not only holds true in football but for Bosnian society as a whole. And there is no end in sight as 10,000 young people leave the country each year.
Will they watch FK Sarajevo become champion again? Semir with his son Daris
In his own life Semir nonetheless tries to make sure that the next generation of FK Sarajevo supporters is alive and well. Earlier this year his son Daris was born and one of the first pictures Semir took was his son lying in a cradle wearing a FK Sarajevo scarf. The place of his birth, Koševo hospital, fits into Semir’s life story, his love for FK Sarajevo and the recent history of the city. The hospital was pivotal in treating wounded citizens during the siege and was badly damaged during this time. From the hospital room in which Daris was born Semir was able to see the stadium and the cementary – and his own future. „I am looking forward to watching a game with my son at Koševo stadium,“ he says. Just like he did with his father when he was a kid.
Bill Shankly’s quote about football being a matter more serious than life and death still holds true. 20 years after Semir sent his father to war with a white lie in order to watch his first derby game.
Koševo stadium north of the center (officially called Asim Ferhatović Hase stadium)
The club: FK Sarajevo
Founded in 1946, the club won the Yugoslavian Championship in 1967 and 1985. Koševo stadium hosted the opening of the Winter Olympic Games held in Sarajevo in 1984. Although winning the championship in Bosnia in 1999, 2007 and 2015, the club has failed to qualify for any European competition for the last 20 years. FK Sarajevo is owned by Vicent Tan, a Malaysian businessman who is also the owner of the British club Cardiff City. Currenty plans are discussed to build a new stadium with a capacity of 15,000 close to the old Koševo stadium.
The city: Sarajevo
During the 1980s the city known for its religious and cultural diversity experienced a decade filled with exciting sporting events, flourishing art scenes and a vibrant urban life. But the war brought this development to an abrupt end only a few years later. During the siege of the city, 11,541 people lost their lives, including over 1,500 children. An additional 56,000 people were wounded. Today, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegowina is slowly recovering and has a population of about 275,000.
The country: Bosnia and Herzegovina
The country declared independence from Yugoslavia on March 3, 1992. The following war killed more than 100,000 people and was ended with the Dayton agreement on December 14, 1995. Since then economic and political progress has been slow. Since the end of the war approximately 150,000 young Bosnians have left the country, and around 10,000 young people still leave the country each year.
In 2016 the unemployment rate was about 25 percent. Youth unemployment was even higher than 65 percent. Bosnia has a population of approximately 3,5 million people with an average salary of around 400 Euro. The political system of the country, which is based on ethnic identity since the war, is considered to be one of the world’s most complicated systems of government.