a A cold night in late 1993. A group of eight men crouched behind a mound of snow at the airport, waiting anxiously. The sprint lasted only 200 yards. They were professional athletes, physically fit. It should have been easy. On the other side of the airport escaping in the dark, Liberty and her mission lie. But they knew they were in the crosshairs of Serbian snipers.
This was a brilliant idea for Fouad Mozorovic. He was the coach of FK Sarajevo and with his city still under siege, he realized that his players had value beyond carrying weapons and fighting on the front lines. He envisioned the idea of touring the world, playing friendly matches, and raising awareness of the plight of civilians and the need for help. The program has been approved by the Bosnian government.
“We trained in the basketball court,” defender Mirza Varisanovic said. “Every day on the way to and from training we were shot by snipers and guns, but our love for the club and football outweighed fear for our lives. That was our way of fighting for Bosnia. We were like ambassadors of Bosnia.”
The biggest practical problem was getting out of Sarajevo. The city was cordoned off preemptively by the United Nations, which had control of the airport. The division was divided into four groups of seven, each under the command of a member of the Bosnian Special Forces. They fled for four nights in a row and agreed to meet at the village of Pazarek, 20 miles to the west.
Mozorovic’s group crossed the center of the airport, where they faced the greatest danger from snipers, only to see a UN patrol. He said, “They had a tank with a headlight, so when we saw the light, we just turned around; it made it look like we were running into town from a free zone. We lay in the snow, UN forces put us in a truck and took us to the free zone. That was the game that was You have to play it.”
They took a refrigerated meat truck to Pazarek, from which the force moved to Zagreb. In the months that followed, they played 54 matches in 17 countries and faced world leaders as diverse as the Pope and Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told them, “This is your way of fighting. This is the best way to present your young state to the world.”
Maybe so. It probably makes sense that if you have a gift that can touch people all over the world, inspire sympathy and understanding, and help those back home, you should use it. There is no point in shooting talented football players. But there’s no point in shooting bus drivers, grocers, or postmen either. Many of these players had doubts, wondering if they had lied to themselves, wondering if they should use their physical stamina to fight more directly.
Football tends to exaggerate its importance, whether it’s talking about a decade without a trophy as suffering, or FIFA President Gianni Infantino claiming the semi-annual World Cup could alleviate the migrant crisis (or journalists thinking anyone caring about battles The very real (traveling on Avanti trains.) It is undeniable that it is inextricably intertwined with geopolitics, but it is always awkward when football intersects with war.
On the one hand, there will be Ukraine’s attempts next week to slow the Russian advance in the Donbass, with the big tactical question of whether the forces in Severodonetsk will be encircled; On the other hand, Ukraine faces a World Cup qualifier playoff against Scotland with great controversy over the use of Oleksandr Zinchenko as a full-back or midfield.
Clearly, one is a matter of life and death that could shape the future of Europe. The other is basically a frivolous pastime which just so happens to have grabbed the world’s attention for a century. It is this last fact that makes Wednesday’s game so important. The result won’t change the world, but Ukraine can still compete in such events, and that they can still try to qualify for the World Cup while Russia is suspended.
Just as the 1954 World Cup was an important symbol of (West) Germany’s reintegration into world affairs, it is important for Ukraine to remain part of the global community – not so much as the skeletal vault in Mariupol, of course, but still something.
For Ukraine Wednesday, it is not important that you win, whether the match will be played or not. Scotland’s players certainly shouldn’t be held back by this situation. More important is the reception Ukraine receives. It’s very hard to say how much the world cares, but a sea of blue and yellow flags in Hampden would send an irrefutable message and could at least provide some relief to those fighting in Ukraine.
Ukraine has not played a competitive match since its World Cup qualifying match in Bosnia last November. Their preparations consisted of friendlies against Borussia Moenchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka, while plans for a match against the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Brussels on Friday were postponed because the local mayor was unable to guarantee the necessary police presence.
But the difficulty of preparation is perhaps part of Ukraine’s greatest strength: the feeling that this is no ordinary match. Slavin Bilic said that at Euro 96 for Croatia there was “extra motivation when you hear the national anthem and especially when you see the reaction at home”. This had already subsided at the World Cup two years later. Small complaints fall before the big thing.
At last year’s Euros, Ukraine’s shirt controversially appeared on a map showing Crimea, Donbass and Luhansk as Ukrainians, and although they were allowed to carry the “honor to Ukraine” slogan, the line “honor of heroes” was removed due to its historical significance and forbidden connotations.
However, any Ukrainian player will know this is their chance to become champions – and champions in a much deeper sense than football usually refers to by that term.