Thursday, 21 November 2013

The beautiful language of football

Every sports lover has their story of how they fell in love with their clubs of choice.

For some Collingwood fans, it might have been when Peter McKenna was flying about and kicking goals across Victoria Park throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Diehards of the Melbourne Tigers may owe some of their devotion to the legendary Andrew Gaze, who lit up the local competition during the 1990s. Whilst, Brisbane Broncos converts probably reminisce fondly to the days when Gorden “Raging Bull” Tallis lined the second row.

Yet, some stories differ significantly from the next.

This is my tale of how a born-and-bred Aussie fell in love with a mid-tier football club battling it out in the unglamorous league of Bosnia.

It is November 2012, and the midweek evening is a bitterly cold one in Zenica, a working class city located an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital, Sarajevo.

Home to little more than 100,000 people, a small crowd of a few thousand have made their way to the local football stadium to support their side, Celik Zenica, in a knockout cup tie against a team from the Herzegovina region of Bosnia.

I find myself positioned right in the middle of the hardened fans in the south stand of ‘Bilino Polje’ for the match. Actually, it is nothing out of the ordinary for me to be here. I have been in Bosnia for more than nine months, and every Celik match I attend, I ensure I grab a ticket amongst the rowdy lads behind the goals who call themselves ‘Robijasi’, or ‘Convicts’ in English. Given my nationality, the name seems kind of appropriate, too.

Me, circled, trying to blend in with the Celik fans.
After months of attending games, I know many faces, though my lack of knowledge for the local language makes it difficult for conversations to progress past a “Hello” and, occasionally, a “How are you?”.

In spite of this, I have worked up a strong familiarity with the songs and chants belted out by the ‘Convicts’. At first, it wasn’t like this.

I remember my first Celik match, and repeatedly questioning my girlfriend’s brother if it would be a problem to stand amongst them, despite not knowing a single word to any of the group’s chants. I was aware that entering their area and not participating may raise problems for me.

Ultimately, there wasn’t an issue. I managed to get through the match making (poor) attempts to mime songs I did not know, and awkwardly clap (out of time, usually).

Now, on this November evening at Bilino Polje, I feel so accustomed and, heck, even comfortable on the south stand with this mob. It is only at half-time of this match that it truly hits me who I am – and where I am!

As the referee blows the whistle to bring an end to a pulsating first half, a young bloke next to me with his shirt off asks, “Imas li pljuga?”. I understand that he is asking if I have something, though I have no idea what “pljuga” is.

After having just spent 45 minutes next to this fellow belting out songs word-for-word in Bosnian, like a true bloody native, I turn to him and tell him in his local tongue, “Sorry, I don’t know Bosnian”.

As one would imagine, the lad was pretty confused. Surely, he thought I was taking the piss.

He scrunches his face in bewilderment. Probably contemplating scrunching his fist, too, another boy familiar to me jumps up and explains the situation. That is, that I am Australian and I really do not know Bosnian.

(For those playing along at home, the guy was asking for a cigarette. No, I didn’t have one.)

It was times like these when it struck me just how far removed from home I was.

Allow me to provide a bit of background to the situation.

I had come to Bosnia to reunite with a girl I had met on travels in the country a year earlier. (She is now my wife, for what it’s worth.)

Although she was the sole reason I made the risky switch as a 19-year-old from my Victorian coastal home to the wintry surrounds of this war-damaged – yet beautiful – country, I would be lying if I said following the local football was not on the agenda whatsoever.

Perhaps this interest is strange coming from a Westerner, given Bosnia’s national football competition is not exactly held in the highest regard.

Plagued with allegations of corruption, and with top sides who struggle to progress past the qualification stages of European competition, you would be hard pressed to find a football fan outside of the continent who could even name a Bosnian side – let alone a mid-table outfit like Celik.

Zenica may be a long way from the flashy lights of Old Trafford or the Nou Camp,
but the passion burns just as hot! 
The club from Zenica, however, were not always this average.

Formed in 1945, the side – whose name means “Steel” in English due to its well-known factory next to the city – were a common sight in the old Yugoslav First League. When Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, and a new league was created specifically for Bosnia, Celik won the title three years in a row.

Since then, clubs from other cities have largely dominated the local competition. This is no more evident than with Zeljeznicar Sarajevo, who have been crowned champions five times in the past 13 seasons.

Despite Celik’s lack of success on the pitch, it is its passionate fan-base which made me fall in love with the club.

Loss after loss, mediocre performance after mediocre – and irrespective of weather conditions – the young men and, even, women are there on the south stand every week chanting their hearts out, hoping the next day will bring more fortune than the last.

There were also occasions where I defied the wishes of my partner and family, deciding to jump on a bus with these fanatics and travel over seven hours to an away match. In the depths of summer. With no air conditioning. And a standing room only vehicle.

For me, it was eye-opening. For them, it was just another week of being a loyal follower of their local team.

It wasn't all smooth sailing in my time as a
Celik supporter. Though, at least I discovered
what it is like to receive stitches. Never
again, thanks ...
Ultimately, I would make two trips with the Celik faithful, zig-zagging through the Bosnian mountains until we eventually reached a small, hidden stadium far away. On each occasion, we would be greeted by countless police and security at the entrance gates who gave more thorough searches than you would expect to see on an episode of Border Security.

On the second occasion, as our bus was on its return journey to Zenica, we were attacked by a group of rival fans from another city. Of course, out of the 60-odd people on the bus, I, the token Aussie, was the only one injured, copping a decent-sized rock to my noggin.

A few hours later in the hospital, and with three stitches to my head, two of the leaders of ‘Convicts’ paid me a visit to check on my welfare. They barely spoke any English, if at all, yet the fact they would make the effort resonated with me.

I was an outsider who had come in and been accepted by these people. The fact we struggled to make sense of each other through conversation was irrelevant.  

Furthermore, I realised Celik Zenica had grown into something I hold close to my heart.

Whilst I have spent the past eight-and-a-half years as a diehard supporter of Australian A-League side Melbourne Victory, it is hard to compare the two entities in terms of their make-up and history.

I do not wish to go into great detail, as I am sure to be side-tracked, though there is something beautiful at the heart of football evident in these corners of the globe.

Most modern-day fans see football through a television from an armchair perspective. In developed countries, like Australia, supporters take for granted the boutique stadiums the sport is played in nowadays. Car park underneath stadium. Check! Escalator to our seats. Check!
Me, circled, with the 'Convicts' en route to an away match
seven hours away.

Though, at grounds like Bilino Polje in Bosnia, you can forget about such hospitality – and that’s what I love.

People don’t come to the game to have a day out. They don’t even come to see multi-million dollar footballers strut their stuff. They come to support and bleed their heart out for their beloved club and the battlers wearing the shirt.  

Although Celik would cruelly lose out in a penalty shootout in the cup tie on that cold November evening at Bilino Polje – and the match would prove to be my last before returning home – my brief sojourn with the faithful in Zenica had an everlasting impact on me as a person.

It reemphasised to me that football is not merely a sport. It is a phenomenon which far transcends the white markings on the hallowed turf.

On the surface, as a born-and-bred Aussie, I had little in common with the faces around me on the terraces. Indeed, I could barely string a sentence together when trying to communicate with them.

Yet, as soon as the whistle blew to kick things off, none of that mattered. We instantly became brothers and sisters, united in support of our warriors on the field.

We didn’t need to know English. We didn’t need to know Bosnian. We already spoke the same language: football.


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