When Predrag Pasic was growing up, Bosnia was always a place of peace and multi-ethnic diversity. But after the war started, his world came crashing down.
The Yugoslavian international player decided to stay in Sarajevo despite the war, risking his life to make children smile.
In a besieged Sarajevo, Pasic decided to open a multi-ethnic football school, where he taught a philosophy of unity and teamwork through sport.
"I'll never forget the day the school opened. Sitting on these benches were 200 boys who'd come from every part of the city. This was a wonderful place during the war," recalls Pasic. "All around the building, people were spreading hatred and firing shells. People were killing each other. But this was a place filled with dreams. The dreams born in the heads of those boys.
"It was crucial for us the school had kids from all of Sarajevo's communities, just like before. They played football, wore the same jerseys and were together. Outside, there was hatred between their fathers and between our politicians. But in here, we were all together."
Al Jazeera spoke to the former star player to talk about the series, his life as football player, and why he decided to brave bombs and bullets in war-torn Sarajevo to run a football school.
Al Jazeera: Can you tell us about the series Football Rebels?
Predrag Pasic: Initially I was not able to speak about my story. It was very difficult. But when I saw a film in Paris about great football players who tried to do very positive things off the football pitch, it was very emotional for me. To see footballers doing something positive has a great impact on people because it is nice seeing footballers striving to do something beneficial for their own people, in their home countries. That is what inspired me to take part in Football Rebels and open up about my own story.
My story is about how children coped during the war in Bosnia and how one football school in Sarajevo tried to do something positive in terrible circumstances. In this school, there were children from all different nationalities, religions and regions who managed to play football together peacefully in one team, despite all the hatred that was happening around them.
Before entering politics, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, was the psychological coach for your old team, FK Sarajevo. What was he like to work with and how did your opinion of him change after he entered politics?
His change was something which shocked me very much because I knew a completely different person before the war began. Before, as our psychological coach, he taught us to play together as one team. Twenty-four different players, of different religions and regions were in that one team. He taught us that only when we are thinking as one team, as one body, could we be successful.
He used to say that a sporting philosophy was a winner’s philosophy! However after he entered politics I saw a man who only spoke about one religion, one people. I could not believe that Serbs were killing non-Serbs. It was a great shock for me to see that man in that light.
You say Sarajevo shaped you as a person you are today. Can you explain how?
I started playing football at a very young age and I have had a lot of opportunity to travel around the world, seeing other countries, other people and other religions. In some countries I saw only churches. In others I only saw mosques or only synagogues. But only in my town, Sarajevo, did I see everything. Within only 400 metres I could hear the sounds of the mosques, the bells of the churches. I could see Jews, Christians and Muslims all making their way to their places of worship. This sight made me very happy and very proud that my town was so open to everyone, whether they were from the east or the west. That is how I feel Sarajevo has shaped me as a person and why I believe in unity.
During the war, you tried to keep politics off the pitch and decided to open a football school. How did you manage to forget what was happening on the outside?
In our country we have a big culture around football – everyone loves it. But during the war, our children suffered very badly. Nothing worked and there were no properly functioning schools. The children suffered the most so I decided to make a radio announcement, in which I told everyone that I would be opening a football school. On the first day, 300 children turned up to enrol. It was a big surprise for me but I soon realised that football, sports in general, is incredibly powerful. During the war, children came to train every single and they were very happy to come.
[From] outside, we could hear shelling, snipers taking shots and some of the children’s parents were members of the warring armies but because of the power of football, we all managed to play peacefully, together in one place. There was not even tension on the pitch. The children did not understand hate. Their view was that we were all the same and they did not understand why there were problems. We reinforced this idea with the philosophy of sport, which is a collective, unifying philosophy.
It is very easy for football to encourage rivalry. How did you use football to bring people together?
I am very happy I spent all my life in the sports industry. I have always believed in the philosophy of sport - the ideas of fair play and respecting your opponent. Do not get me wrong, it is nice to beat somebody on the football field but as a man and as a gentleman you must always have respect.
How did the school help you personally deal with the trauma of war?
It helped me greatly because the children gave me the power to survive. When I saw how happy they were on the football field, and when I heard about their dreams to be football stars, I saw how much stronger these feeling were than [the feelings of] hate. It encouraged me to continue working despite the war and to find the strength to continue to this day.
You were at the height of your career when the Bosnian war broke out and you could have left Sarajevo with the NATO forces but you did not. What made you decide to stay?
I was born in Sarajevo and I am a citizen of Sarajevo. It would have been very difficult for me to leave my hometown. It would have been very hard to abandon my people; the people who helped me become a football star. For me, there was not a strong enough reason to leave and so I stayed with my family in Sarajevo during the war.
What has been the highlight of your footballing career?
Without a doubt, the highlight of my football career has been opening the football school. Everybody knows me as a football star. Most people in Sarajevo do not even know about the work I do at the school but I would definitely say it has been the highlight of my entire life’s work.
About the series:
As the global sporting world faces one corruption scandal after another, former Manchester United star Eric Cantona presents the stories of five football heroes whose social conscience led them to challenge unjust regimes, join opposition movements and lead the fight for democracy and human rights. Football Rebels looks at a side of football that does not always make the headlines.
Source: Al Jazeera