The Bosnia and Stoke City goalkeeper, who has a way of encountering senseless violence and coming out on top, will cherish his memories of the World Cup in Brazil
Whether it was the outbreak of the Balkan war that prompted his family to flee Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s or the Portsmouth bar brawl that forced the American stranger he would later marry into his arms for the first time, conflict has left some indelible punctuation marks on the life story of Asmir Begovic. It is an intriguing tale, the most recent chapter of which unfolded in Brazil, where the 27-year-old played in goal for the country of his birth as they contested their first major international football tournament.
Pitted against Argentina, Nigeria and Iran in the group stages, they acquitted themselves reasonably well in the face of some rotten luck: an own goal in the opening minutes of their opener against the eventual finalists and an Edin Dzeko strike incorrectly ruled out for offside against Nigeria. Despite going out at the group stages, the Bosnians at least scored their first goals and recorded their inaugural win at a World Cup. A lot done, more to do; it was an experience to cherish for the Stoke City goalkeeper.
“It was special, a memory I’ll have for the rest of my career and the rest of my life,” says Begovic, upon being asked to describe the feeling of lining up opposite the players of Argentina before his side’s opening match at the Maracanã. “Even the night before, getting to train there was a very special occasion in a very special place in footballing terms. Being there was a dream coming true. You’re kind of living in that moment and it’s a moment you kind of wish could last forever, but it’s only for a short time.”
It might not have happened. Born in the municipality of Trebinje, around 30 kilometres from the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, Begovic was four when his family left the Balkans at the outbreak of a bloody ethnic war that soundtracked international news bulletins of the day with gun and mortar fire. They found sanctuary with family in the German town of Kirchhausen before moving to Edmonton in Canada six years later.
It was there Begovic made a name for himself as a goalkeeper, having inherited the gene from his father, a representative of Yugoslavia through the under-age ranks. His son would do the same for Canada, going so far as to sit on the bench for the senior side, coming within a managerial whim of ruling himself out of contention for the country of his birth.
“It was a big process and a long process,” Begovic says of the motivation behind his decision to declare eventually for Bosnia and Herzegovina. “I relished the opportunities I had to play for the Canadian national team and obviously always in the back of my mind I was thinking about Bosnia and what that would mean and how great it would be, but you could never guarantee a call-up and you never knew what the situation was.”
At the time he was with Portsmouth, who farmed him out on loan to clubs including Macclesfield, Bournemouth, Yeovil and Ipswich. He established himself in the first team shortly before moving on to Stoke in the wake of Portsmouth’s financial disintegration.
“If I’d been capped for Canada, I would have been capped and that would have been the situation and something I couldn’t change,” says Begovic. “So when I did receive the call-up for Bosnia, I made the long, hard decision and thought about it and for many different reasons felt that was the best thing.”
Personal or professional reasons? “Both,” he says. “Obviously from a family standpoint, it being the country of my birth means a lot to me and to my family being able to watch these games. Me representing them was a huge thing. But probably more importantly, it’s the football side of things. Getting to play European qualifiers, World Cup qualifiers each and every year ... with so many games at a high level, I thought it would make me better as a player and I thought it would give me a chance to go to a major tournament with the country I want to represent. So it was a definitely a big decision, but I think it was the right decision and I’ve never had any regrets about it.”
Begovic describes his time in Brazil as “a fantastic experience” and chalks up the misfortunes that did his team out of a place in the second round as “those little fine margins that can cost you in a tournament”. He’s not making excuses, mind. “To be brutally honest, I think we are a better team than Nigeria, but on the night we didn’t show it,” he admits of Bosnia’s 1-0 reverse against the African side in Cuiabá. “We didn’t play to our capabilities, Nigeria exploited some of our weaknesses and did a good job of making us pay for any mistakes that we made.”
Of the suggestion that Bosnia should have done better in their opener against out-of-sorts Argentina despite conceding an early own goal, he is surprisingly sanguine. “We tried to make it happen and I think we pushed Argentina to the limit,” he says. “I think those are the positives from the whole tournament that we can take: being able to say that we performed on the world’s biggest stage against one of the best teams in the world. It’s something we need to build on.”
Ambushed by the random introduction to our chat of a photo of Lionel Messi scoring Argentina’s winner against him and asked if the sight of it makes him feel happy or sad, Begovic laughs. “You know what, I’m going to keep seeing myself getting scored on by Messi, so I guess that could be a good thing,” he says. “At the end of the day, we lost against Argentina to an own goal and a special goal by Lionel Messi, so it wasn’t too bad.”
Despite the career high of representing Bosnia in front of proud friends and family, Begovic is looking forward to returning to his comparatively mundane day job, although persistent links with high-profile clubs prompt the question of whether he’ll begin the season as a Stoke player. “As far as I know, yes, because I haven’t been told otherwise,” he says. “That’s where my focus is and that’s where I’ll go back for pre-season. That’s the way the situation stands at the moment.”
And in the event of a bigger, more successful club attempting to turn his head, would he be tempted to leave the Britannia Stadium? “It’s no secret that, like any player, I would like to play at the highest level possible,” says Begovic. “I want to push myself and achieve things in my career and win trophies.
“But at the moment I’m with a club that’s moving forward, that’s got a very good manager and a very good chairman. I am happy to be part of helping them push forward to see what kind of things we can achieve. But I also understand that football is a business, so things happen. If things are right for both sides, then things could change very quickly. But my focus is on where my contract is and that’s where I see my immediate future until I get told otherwise.”
For the time being, Begovic seems content with life in Staffordshire, where he is happily settled with his wife, Nicolle, and daughter, Taylor. Mrs Begovic is an accomplished horsewoman with lofty sporting ambitions of her own: she has realistic hopes of some day competing in dressage at the Olympics. Asked to confirm if it is true that the couple met during a good old-fashioned pub punch-up in Portsmouth, Begovic nods.
“Yeah, you know what, you can’t make these things up sometimes,” he laughs. “We were in a little pub or bar that was nothing special and I’d noticed her earlier as I walked in with my friends. As we were getting a little closer to get to each other, a bit of a brawl broke out between people who were getting drunk and getting at it, so she just kind of fell into my arms and I protected her a little bit and did the macho man thing. It was a pretty cool moment and one we’ve never looked back from.” It was not the first time in life Begovic encountered senseless violence, only to make the best of it.