On the first day of the World Cup, with all eyes on Brazil, a much, much smaller event plays out on a cluster of fields near the Elkhorn River.
A pair of brothers are telling 12- and 13-year-old boys to run and kick and pass and try.
Mirza, the older one at age 30, splits his group into two and has them scrimmage.
Down the field with another group, Nedim, 27, pulls back his right foot, swings his leg forward and slices the air with his size 9 Adidas.
“Watch,” he says, and then adds: Swing your legs. Lift your feet. Show the bottom of your cleats and put some effort into it, some heart into it!
For the brothers, who fled their native Bosnia two decades ago and wound up in Omaha, this sport is more than a ball and fancy feet.
Soccer has been their salvation. It got them through the brutal war and eased their entry into a new life in a strange new place. It has connected them to where they’re from and has formed who they are.
And now as Bosnia makes its World Cup debut, soccer has given them hope that a still-fractious country can rally around a common cause.
Mirza and Nedim Hasanbegovic don’t lay this heavy message on the lads in the Elkhorn United club. Grinning, Mirza has the scrimmage losers drop, and he gives them 10 pushups. Nedim has the boys drill and drill and drill and says: “Nice and easy.”
Control the ball. Focus on what’s ahead. Nice and easy, boys.
That’s how the early years went for Nedim and Mirza in the former Yugoslavia. Nice and easy. Their mother was a corporate lawyer working for a food production company in Sarajevo. Their father was a land surveyor. Like everyone else, the Hasanbegovic boys ate, drank and slept a sport Americans call soccer but the rest of the world calls football. They rooted for the home team, FK Sarajevo. They wore the team’s color, maroon, and got new team scarves every year.
Yugoslavia won Olympic gold in soccer in 1960. Mirza and Nedim were too young to remember most of the country’s eight World Cup appearances.
But Mirza was old enough to tag along with their father, Esad, to FK Sarajevo games at a stadium so loud it gave him goose bumps. They were both old enough to kick the ball around at home with Esad. They were both old enough — Mirza was 8 and Nedim was 5 — to remember when their world turned upside down in the spring of 1992.
Yugoslavia, a nation of strong ethnic groups pulled together after World War I, was cracking apart. The Serbs had their own country of mostly Christian Orthodox. The Croats had their own country of mostly Catholics. And now Bosnia and Herzegovina had announced that it, too, was forming its own country. It included Bosniaks who were Muslim and Bosnians who were Croat or Serb.
Bosniaks were thrilled. Serbs were not. Soon after the announcement came the shooting. Then the bombing.
Then this life that the Hasanbegovics had built crumbled. The water was shut off. The electricity was shut off. The banks closed. Schools closed. Jobs closed.
It was not safe to play outside. With winter coming, it was cold because no one had glass anymore in their windows. You risked your life to walk to the water pump.
By November 1992, the boys were on a Red Cross bus with their grandmother and mother headed for refuge in Croatia. Their father, like the rest of the men, had to stay behind and fight, enduring 2½ years of slaughter and horror.
Esad Hasanbegovic was injured but recovered, then escaped to Croatia and joined his family. Then, with their grandmother, all five joined an exodus of Bosnians. Many landed in the U.S. The Hasanbegovics came to Omaha, where another relative had fled.
A huge Bosnian community greeted them at the airport in Omaha.
Their mother, Edina, remembers the lights. So many lights. Lights that meant safety, normalcy and incredible relief.
Nedim, who was 8, remembers Baker’s. So much food on his first trip to a grocery store.
Mirza, who was 11, remembers soccer.
They couldn’t speak a lick of English, but someone asked if they would play for a club team. The boys found great refuge in moving a familiar ball down a familiar field.
On the field, the boys could forget their folks working two or three jobs. They could put aside the worries about Bosnia. They could lose any anxiety over learning English and just play.
“When we went on the soccer field,” Mirza says, “everything was OK.”
The brothers went to Oakdale Elementary. Their folks took English classes. Within five years, the Hasanbegovics had bought a house. Edina and Esad traveled to their sons’ out-of-state club soccer games and got to see parts of the U.S. The boys caught whatever soccer they could find on television and played their hearts out.
During his time at Westside High School, Mirza was named to The World-Herald’s All Metro team. Mirza was also on the first Nebraska club team to qualify for the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships.
Nedim earned distinction for helping his Westside Warriors earn their first Class A soccer championship in six years. His corner kick, headed into the goal by a teammate, clinched the win in 2004 over Lincoln Southeast.
Both brothers played for Hastings College. Nedim helped his team win its conference title in 2005. That year, the Great Plains Athletic Conference named Nedim soccer player of the year. In 2007, Region 3 bestowed the same honor and the Hastings coach called Nedim “one of the best players on our team.” Nedim was named to the all-Nebraska team in 2009.
They both have college degrees from Hastings, and Mirza went on to earn a master’s degree from Wayne State in communication.
Both work in sales. And both spend a lot of time coaching soccer.
Nedim’s team surprised him recently when the players showed up for a game dressed in the royal blue jerseys of the Bosnian national team.
“Nedim has taught our boys a passion for the game of soccer,” said Anne Specht, the mother of one player. “But more importantly, he has taught them a lot about love of family and love of country.”
The Hasanbegovic brothers were especially passionate Sunday as the Bosnia and Herzegovina team played its first World Cup game against heavily favored Argentina.
Bosnia lost in the 2-1 game. But the team has at least two more contests, Saturday against Nigeria and June 25 against Iran.
Mirza said every Bosniak on the planet was in front of a TV — or for the lucky few, in Rio de Janeiro — Sunday night. Nedim said he’d skip his own wedding to watch Bosnia play.
For the Hasanbegovics, love of soccer is intertwined with love of country. They are U.S. citizens who deeply appreciate America and are grateful for the opportunities life here has given them. But they are also native Bosnians, heartened by the way this first-time entry into the World Cup has brought their often-divided nation together.
“It’s funny how sports works,” Mirza said. “Something like this just lifted up the whole nation.”
A recent article in the Guardian described the Bosnian national team as “the only functioning multi-ethnic organism” in the country. Writer Ed Vulliamy said ethnic differences play no role when a Croat passes the ball to a Serb who hands it off to star striker Edin Džeko, a Bosniak.
Džeko once described growing up during the war in Bosnia: “I had a very sad childhood in the middle of a siege. ... I was only young and I cried often. Every day you could hear the guns firing.”
Džeko is a few months older than Nedim.
Nedim’s mother told me she was grateful for the family’s escape.
If they had stayed, perhaps her boys would be on Bosnia’s national team.
Or perhaps they would be dead. Estimates of Bosnian War dead range from 140,000 to 200,000. One report to the United Nations said 12,000 children died.
Home, said Edina Hasanbegovic, is where you are happy. And she and Esad, and Mirza and Nedim, say they are very happy in Omaha. But Bosnia is imprinted on their hearts and, literally, on their skin.
Both brothers wear tattoos of the map of Bosnia.
On Sunday, Mirza and Nedim missed soccer practice. They traded the JPM Field for a spot in front of the TV in their folks’ northwest Omaha home to root for their home team. Bosnia and Herzegovina.
No one talked during the game, and Nedim had one word to describe the mood: “stressful.” But afterward, the Hasanbegovics took the loss gracefully, exulting in their nation’s appearance on the world stage and hopeful about what it means.
“We’re not disappointed,” Nedim said. “We are excited, not only for the World Cup, but to show we belong.”