Zen, Zenith, Zenica; Losing and Winning with Wales in Bosnia
Sunday 11 October, 10:30pm
Your eyes blink open to dull equidistant yellow flashes of street lamps dancing across the steamed up window. You wipe away the condensation and peer through the raindrops to see the familiar stark brutalist tower-blocks of New Belgrade. You’ve been here before.
Twelve years ago you came down this road for the first time; lying in the rear luggage space of a mini-bus of Wales fans being driven back from another under-21s defeat by a seemingly blind Serb. Your first Wales away trip and you’d already travelled through seven countries, been among pyrotechnics in the Czech Premier League, and sped through the streets of Novi Sad in the back of a Serbian police car. The game wasn’t ‘til tomorrow and you were already hooked. It’s never been about the football.
Thursday 8 October
You arranged to meet in Mostar, on the bridge, because where else could people meet in Mostar? Instead you find each other in the bus station. Ralph, the other half of your Wales away experience, arriving from Zagreb at the same time you arrive from Dubrovnik. He’s booked you into the Vila Park. ‘Because of the name?’ ‘Of course’. You’re welcomed there by Gabi with what you will discover to be typical Bosnian hospitality. She shows you to your room, and then walks you to the town.
In a café above the Neretva Ralph orders a beer, to which the waitress responds by pointing over her shoulder at the grand mosque you’re in the grounds of. Bosnian coffee follows profuse apology. From here, to actual bars, across the famous Stari Most and beyond, you take time to catch up. You got soaked in Croatia, he got a free Sarajevo taxi ride for mentioning Džemal Hadžiabdić. As night falls you try to take a seat at a picturesque bar beneath the bridge. A woman steps outside;
‘Sorry we are closed’
‘It is October,’ she shrugs, and offers no further explanation.
There is no escaping the scars of Mostar’s recent past. Many buildings are still ruins, others are remain riddled with holes caused by bullets and shrapnel; and each cemetery, of which there are many, contains row upon row of unignorable stark white headstones; 1967-1992, 1971-1992, 1958-1992, 1973-1992, 1965-1992. Later that night, outside a bar in the city’s student area, you come to realise that the tensions and feelings that drove the city apart remain as prescient as the visible marks. A friend of the waiter, on discovering you are from Wales, sends over free beer, after free beer. Why? Because he is a Croat, a Hadjuk Split hooligan, a very drunk one at that, and he wants you to beat Bosnia. ‘Fuck Bosnia,’ he tells you, ‘fuck the bridge’. Another Croat pulls up a chair, the waiter too, and none are shy in telling you their dislike for the Bosnians across the bridge. ‘We hate Islam… hate Muslims… you will beat Bosnia’. Shocked, concerned, outnumbered, what can you do? You can only roll eyes at each other, in an unspoken agreement to leave the moment your drinking gets ahead of the pace of the service. ‘Za platim… hvala… good night’.
Friday 9 October
After darkness comes light. On to Sarajevo, where you’ve arranged a piss up in the brewery; meeting up with many of the same faces you first met in that Serbian mini-bus twelve years ago. From here you move on to Bosnia’s premier Galatasaray theme bar, owned by Tarik Hodzic, who played for the side in the 1980s. The man himself is in residence, and delights in curating the framed photos that fill the wall; him captaining Georgi Hagi, him dining with Michel Platini. You thank Tarik, leaving him in a corner with his only other customer, and go on to Goldfish, a quirky bar, part art nouveau chic, part set of Multi-coloured Swap Shop. ‘There are twelve of you? I’ve never seen twelve people come here’, says Helena Bonham-Carter’s more beautiful Bosnian cousin from behind the bar. ‘You know we’ve found a good bar,’ says Matt, ‘when we’ve been here three hours and no-one’s suggested moving on’. Indeed, the only move on you do, is to bed. Parting hugs and handshakes before a weaving walk through the now silent city.
Saturday 10 October
Wales away is a small world. Leaving your apartment in the morning you spot a familiar man holding a familiar flag. Of all the streets, in all of Sarajevo. It’s Ben, and he joins you to collect Ains at the Latin Bridge and take a taxi to the bus station. ‘Two nil, Bosnia’ a man yells as you hurry past. You make it to the bus just in time, to the annoyance of the driver. ‘You will have to stand,’ he says. And you do; the hour and twenty minutes to Zenica, upright in the aisle of a coach, all the time wondering if the huge crack on the windscreen was caused by the last person to stand in your spot.
It was raining in Sarajevo. It’s raining in Zenica. ‘It’s October,’ shrugs the taxi-driver. Closed bars and sunless skies; October really is no time to visit. Stray dogs and steady drizzle; Zenica is a grim, grey place. The war stole the heart from the city’s booming industry and twenty years on it appears to be still pining for past prosperity.
At Hotel Fontana they’re pinning red and white balloons to the entrance. ‘For Wales?’ asks Ains. For a wedding they tell you. Checked in, you head across town. The walk is quiet; pre-match nerves starting to displace conversation. Across the river in Hotel Zenica, the first face to greet you is that of Chris Coleman; smiling, relaxed, arms spread across the back of a lobby sofa. It knocks you out of your stride, and you briefly forget why you’re here. As you chat with Lucy and Rob, players and staff pass by calm and joking, such professional serenity juxtaposing heavily with the prestissimo of your own game-day heartbeat. ‘Good luck boys,’ says Ains to Coleman and his coaches as you leave. The manager voices his thanks. Outside you look up to see if it is still raining, and meet the gaze of an armed policeman standing on the roof of the adjacent shopping centre. Tonight really could go down one of two very extreme paths.
Over good food and good beer, you laugh and joke with the waiter of the Restaurant Dubrovnik. An old man decked head to toe in Bosnia supporter garb is the latest to tell you ‘2-0, Bosnia’. Everyone’s so certain, you wonder if the game was yesterday. Asmir Begovic’s wife and her step-dad stop by your table to say hello. ‘I was born in Brecon, so it’s a running joke that I’m Welsh,’ he tells you. Some gag. Presumably it’s funny because it’s true. A nice man from the Bosnian FA on an adjacent table stands you all a round of beers, with a scarf chaser for Ains. The restaurant has become Wales Away in microcosm.
Back at Fontana the wedding is now in full swing – the reception and banquet room are one and the same, so to nip to your room you must first apologetically blunder through the big finale of the wedding singer’s opening number. ‘Dobro’ you say to the singer as you step over his microphone lead on the return journey three minutes later; he nods his head with a sadness that suggests he’d envisaged greater things from his singing career than churning out the hits in a hotel conservatory, whilst a succession of uninvited Welshmen traipse across his stage.
Club 72; owned by a former Čelik Zenica hooligan, bar-tended by a former Bosnian rugby union player. Here, fifteen or so Welshmen eradicate pre-match tension by yelling at a different sport altogether. As the barman deposits another round of pizzas and beers on the table Alun calls him over; ‘I hear you played scrum-half for Bosnia? I played scrum-half for my school’. Australian victory, bar tab settled, you can put it off no longer. Through rain-sodden streets you make the short walk to the ground. Smoke from cevapčići stands drifts across the road; a man sells flags and scarfs beneath a borrowed pub umbrella; the glow from the floodlights silhouettes the hoods and umbrellas of supporters at the back of the home terrace.
For the last three days, beers and bridges have ensured you haven’t had to confront the reality of the enormity of tonight’s game. Now, as you edge through the gloom, towards the away terrace, with neither in sight nor in hand, it hits you. This really could be it. It’s a heavy cross to bear, so much so that the pre-match and the first half blur past before you can take any of it in. You remember the anthems, the huge Bosnian flag and the mutual applause. You remember the in-joke chanting between the pocket of Wales fans in the stand and those getting wet on the terrace; ‘Where the fucking hell’s your roof?’ responded to with ‘If it wasn’t for the stewards you’d be dead’. You remember snatches of action; Neil Taylor attempting a volley, a Jazz Richards drag-back, Joe Allen’s doggedness, Aaron Ramsey’s footwork, Gareth Bale bearing down on goal. He had a shot saved. He may have wasted another; it’s all happening so far away it’s hard to tell. And then, for a brief second you’re cheering, Ramsey or Taylor, one of them must have, they have to have, they haven’t. Begovic stands up with the ball in his arms, the referee blows his whistle. You’re halfway there.
Fifteen minutes into a hitherto unremarkable second half all innocence is shattered by a PA announcement. The Bosnian fans to your right let out a mighty roar… and then, as groups huddle round rain-spattered phone screens, in fits and starts, you begin cheering too. Hundreds of miles away your fate is being decided for you; Cyprus are winning. It’s just as well, as the unbreachable defence is about to be breached; a nothing free-kick, a nothing header, something of a goal. Bosnia lead, and their fans celebrate wildly; in the ground the noise is deafening, outside a man watching from a tower block, leans out of his living room window and lights a bright red flare.
‘I don’t want to do it like this,’ says Ralph, but there is arguably no more Wales a way to cross the line, than to limp over it beaten. By now, the murmurs from those checking phones are as important as the action on the pitch. Israel have equalised. Nerves have been shredded. Ramsey volleys over, Bale over-runs a through-ball, David Edwards fires over, Sam Vokes’ header is saved. None of it matters; Cyprus are ahead once again – it scrolls across the scoreboard. The away section celebrates once more, whilst the ball sits innocuously in midfield. Bosnia add another awful goal; a scuffed corner, met by a scuffed header, scuffed back across goal, where it’s scuffed home from close range. You stand silently, watching the home fans celebrate, as you’ve done so many times before. Only this time the hope which normally kills you, remains.
As the clock ticks down, Sky’s Bryn Law takes up position on the touchline beneath you. An unspoken, but collective logic tells you all; he must know, he’s wearing headphones. ‘Bryn Law, Bryn Law, what’s the score?’ you chant. He holds up two hands; two fingers on one, one on the other, seconds pass… they feel like hours, before Bryn’s hands change; the fingers are down, it is now just two fists punching the air. They’ve done it. We’ve done it. You’ve done it. Arms flail; umbrellas twirl, hands point into the night sky. And then, on the pitch down in front of you news slowly filters through. In hindsight you’ll wonder how Chris Coleman didn’t twig from the site of 700 delerius Welsh-folk alone, but for now you’ll just enjoy the moment as he is told, and he walks back towards you; arms pumping, tie-flapping, mouth roaring. We’ve done it.
The players rush and dive towards you; fans scale the fence in joy, in a want to be even more part of all this. The noise doesn’t abate – the National Anthem, a Zombie Nation – and you sing, and you dance, and Joe Ledley dances more, and you jump and yell and hug. You’re hundreds of miles from home, you’re cold, you’re soaked through, you’ve lost two nil… you wouldn’t swap this for anything else.
Somewhere behind you Ains is hugging Ben; ‘I can’t believe the first time I’ve met you we qualified… I should’ve met you twenty-five years ago.’ As the players traipse from the field, and the last of the Bosnians leave the stands around you, applauding the Wales fans as they do, you sing ‘Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home,’ and mean every word.
Eventually, and reluctantly, you are edged out of the stadium. At the back of the terrace one Wales fan turns and faces the field, before lighting a cigar the size of a cricket stump. On the square behind the away end you find other long-suffering Wales-awayers – people who’ve been through way more than you to get here. A local camera crew marvel at the scenes; men who should know better – grizzled and world-weary, dads and professionals, openly weeping and hugging. For once, it actually is all about the football. A song breaks out; yma o hyd, despite everyone and everything we’re still here. It couldn’t be more apt.
As the residents of the tower blocks lean out their windows to applaud and congratulate you, you pick your way through the police lines and round the sodden streets to a bar beside the stadium. Inside, as every one of the patrons shakes your hand, you realise this was the best way it could’ve happened. They are happy for themselves, they are happy for you. And you can’t stop grinning. ‘Thank you… hvala… see you in Paris’. You move on, back to Club 72, where you’re greeted by bouncing hugs from those of your group who’d been sat in the stands, and a standing ovation from the Bosnians and Herzegovinians.
And from there the night goes on and on; he was supposed to close at midnight, you’re still there after 4am. ‘You keep drinking, I keep open’. It seems a fair trade-off. You jump and sing with the Bosnians in the bar and out in the street. Ains is hoisted to the ceiling, Ade has his first beer in a decade. From Andy Williams and Tom Jones, to the Marseilles and ‘We’ll never qualify’, it is relentless and endless, and all you’ve ever wanted. Viva Gareth Bale, viva the barman, viva Bosnia.
There can and only ever will be one night like this. It’s hard to explain, but consider this. I am of reasoned enough mind to know that this is only football. I can lucidly state that Wales do not mean more to me than my family, or my girlfriend. And yet, I am fool enough to romance and escapism for all this to really and emphatically matter.
I’ve never really known what I want to do in life – never really known what I wanted to be. I’ve flitted from jobs and careers, I’ve cocked up relationships and so, knowing my own instability and unreliability, I’ve shied from setting life goals to want or strive for. But in football, a constant sideline to my life, one that has always offered an escape from the confusion and the reality, there has always been one distant dream – Gatsby’s light at the end of the dock – Wales qualifying for a major tournament. It is the only target I’ve ever set out to see, the only eternal pursuit I’ve ever faced. To achieve that, to be there for it, to live it, it is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. It is the greatest night of my life.
Sunday 11 October
You wake with the hangover from heaven. At breakfast it is handshakes and smiles all round. Taxis arrive and remove their Zenica lights before ferrying you back to Sarajevo, where the people you met in that Serbian mini-bus wait at the airport go their separate ways; to London, to Cardiff, to Brno, via Zagreb, Vienna and more. You never make it that simple; you fly tomorrow. So must rattle your case along the rain-soaked streets of Sarajevo, take in coffee and one last cevapčići before the onward journey across the Balkans.
The five and a half hour car journey to Belgrade offers plenty of time for reflection, and as you wind your way through mist-shrouded Bosnian mountains, with every hairpin turn, your whole Wales watching life rolls by. Teenage Kicks in Belgrade, spat at in the San Siro, empty nights echoing in the Millennium, losing a shoe celebrating in Teplice, the ten beer bet in Trnava, hating Sparta Prague in Vienna, that sandwich on the train from Podgorica, the Belgian techno, the Scottish snow. It was never about the football. Not even now.
Monday 12 October, 5:15am
Standing on the pavement outside your hotel, Belgrade remains shrouded in the same rain and darkness in which you arrived little over six hours ago.
‘Your stay in Belgrade was very short’, says the young receptionist, as he stands with you.
You tell him you’ve been here before. A few times. And you talk about football. He supports Red Star and Southampton. He’s heard of Doncaster Rovers through Football Manager. He’s too young to remember twelve years ago, but remembers the last time you were in Serbia.
‘Gareth Bale scored a very good free-kick goal’
‘Yes,’ you reply, ‘but Serbia scored six. It wasn’t a great day for us’.
He laughs and shrugs, ‘Well you know, in the end, all is good’.
by Glen Wilson