World Cup Fever in St. Louis' Little Bosnia
ST. LOUIS (CN) - The party at the small Bosnian bar that had started well over an hour before kickoff suddenly stopped. Conversation was silenced and all eyes were glued to the televisions as ESPN's pregame coverage of Bosnia's World Cup match against Nigeria showed a piece about Bosnian soccer star Edin Dzeko returning to Sarajevo after the team returned from qualifying for the country's first-ever World Cup.
As the images of bullet-scarred buildings filled the screens, the older Bosnians were taken back to the middle of a civil war that drove them 5,200 miles from their homeland, while the younger generation saw why their parents took them half a world away for a better life.
"They take you back," Ismet Dedic said. "That's like a shock. When they talk about Dzeko and you see all that bombing, we all just go like 20 years back. It's just a bad feeling. You don't want to go back."
The conversation and festive atmosphere returned to the bar as soon the piece ended. The bar, called Skala, sits in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis. The area now is known as Little Bosnia, after most of the estimated 40,000 to 70,000 Bosnians who now call St. Louis their home migrated to the area.
Across the street from Skala, a fountain called "Sebilj" is identical to a fountain in Sarajevo. A Bosnian national flag hangs from Skala's entrance and down the street a fire hydrant is painted in Bosnia's blue and yellow.
Dedic, 43, Skala's owner, fought as a soldier for his country in the war in 1992. He was captured and held for eight months in Serbia. He and several others escaped one February night by running across a frozen river into Croatia.
"I don't talk about war," Dedic said. "My two kids are born here, one is born in Bosnia. I try not to talk about war. They know some that I was in a war, I was in prison, how I escaped, how I get here, but I try not to talk about it."
Soccer is the great healer for this community.
Dozens of people crowded the bar well before the start of Bosnia's game against Nigeria on Saturday. Most wore Bosnian soccer jerseys. Several were draped in Bosnian flags.
The scene also played out in other bars in the area. Schnucks, the largest St. Louis grocery chain, and Walgreen's are selling Bosnian car flags, vuvuzelas and other Bosnian garb.
While Dzeko might be the best player on the Bosnian team, he isn't the favorite in St. Louis. That honor belongs to Vedad Ibisevic, who grew up in St. Louis and played for St. Louis University before going on to star in Europe.
"He's a star for us," Dedic said. "He's No.1. He's from St. Louis. He's our kid."
Most people in the bar either know or played with the 29-year-old Ibisevic on several local teams.
Alen Bradaric is one of them. Bradaric, now 26, practiced with Ibisevic on a local Bosnian team.
"I was 16 and he was at SLU, when he was getting ready to go with the youth U-21s," Bradaric said. "He was at all of our practices and you are face to face with him and two months later he's playing for Paris."
The game starts and the crowd lives and dies on every play. Twenty minutes later, the bar erupts as Dzeko appears to have scored, but the jubilation dies as the play as called offside. After a replay showed the officials got it wrong, a woman buries her head into a Bosnian flag.
Nigeria takes the lead in the 28th minute on a controversial goal. The festive mood in Skala quickly turns into worry and angst.
Amanda Lestina takes a seat at the bar. She isn't Bosnian, but she's adopted the team. Lestina is the administrator of the Bevo neighborhood's Facebook page and loves how the Bosnian community has turned the neighborhood around.
"When I was a medic down here in the '90's, I literally put my flak jacket on to come into the area," Lestina said. "And it was the Bosnian community that made it safe and made it better."
While many Bosnians have opened businesses and found a better way of life in St. Louis, they haven't forgotten their homeland. When devastating floods ravaged Bosnia in March, the St. Louis Bosnian Chamber of Commerce responded by sending 60,000 pounds of flood relief back home.
The minutes tick by in the second half and Bosnia hasn't been able to capitalize on numerous chances. If Bosnia doesn't at least get the tying goal, it will lose any chance of advancing out of pool play.
Bosnia's best chance came in the 82nd minute, but when the ball sailed wide a man who identified himself as Muhammad Ali slammed his hand into the bar. He says he was named after the famed boxer when his father sold two cars to buy a television so he could watch Ali fight Joe Frazier. The man was born that very night.
"This is the worst pain of my life!" Ali says as he guzzles down a Bud Light.
There is more than just a love of soccer at Skala. Besides national pride, the Bosnians feel an actual connection to the team.
Recently, when the Bosnian team came to St. Louis for a pre-World Cup friendly match, many of the players sat at the same bar, laughing and joking with their countrymen. There was no security, no buffers, just fellowship.
"Whether they came here or not, people would love them to death," Bradaric said. "When they came here, it was like, 'Man, they are just like us.' They play soccer, but they are not stuck up at all."
The minutes tick down and as the game goes into injury time, a growing dread and realization creep into the bar. Finally, the games ends. Bosnia lost 1-0 and its first World Cup appearance would end in pool play.
As soon as the game ends, the television is turned down and techno music fills Skala. Though disappointed, the patrons are still proud of their beloved soccer team.
"This was just an unreal experience, just to be part of it," Bradaric said. "We were close so many times. We still have a few other guys that will be around for another cycle. Maybe this was to just get their feet wet. Hopefully, we'll be back."