feature_story

MORE THAN A GAME

8 March 2017
Women’s football national team on a pre-season training at the Training Centre of the BiH Football Association, Zenica

These women are not involved in prestigious individual sports. They do not wear white skirts, they do not get the money from annual municipal budgets in Bosnia and Herzegovina after winning a tournament title.

Nor are they a part of generally accepted team sport disciplines like basketball, volleyball and, perhaps, team handball, often recommended by sport pedagogues to girls during their formal education. They chose football, or football chose them. In a place where patriarchy reigns, it was clear that their ball would not thrust them into the limelight, turn them into national pride nor would their fans get impatient for game scores.  We shall not see them in ads of the leading advertisers, we shall not know details of their habits, choice of a life partner or how they spend their free time. Their photos are not the most popular Instagram photos taken in the Maldives beach resorts or other exotic destinations. Their parents do not cheer them on, at least not always and certainly not in the beginning, because they are not going to become the next Djokovic and Dzeko.

Yet, once we have gotten to know them, we shall change the way we look at both life and sport and we shall become more aware that not all of us have equal opportunities nor do we all start from an equal position. Their individual stories are not fictionalized biographies, their rise from the margins of society were most often long difficult journeys. For the girls playing for the Sarajevo and national teams, football was not just a sport. Oftentimes it was a resort, an escape from everyday life, vices, bad company, an inadequate family environment - poverty, in short. Team games, a safe environment and understanding are more important than their formal results achieved despite the obstacles they face.

The football pitch became the field of not only their achievements in sport but also of their personal accomplishments, the place which helped them all achieve professional fulfilment through the salaries they are paid, which, no matter how small, still give them at least partial financial independence and a little bit of freedom.

Today, they are asked less and less, “Why football?”, which is another in a range of their victories on the path they set out on first by jumping over the fence into a football auxiliary field and going all the way to organising the UEFA Cups.

Let’s meet Almina Alma Hodzic, the goalkeeper of the SFK 2000 club and a national team player, and Vildana Willy Imamovic, a former football player, who is today the SFK 2000 manager.

FOOTBALL FOR ALL

Thanks to coach Samira Hurem and her decision to form a club open to all girls, Vildana Imamovic, among other girls, replaced playing with the boys and a girl with training football in a professional environment. In 2000, when the SFK was formed, she was 15 and was immediately given her long-desired position on the pitch – the position of a goalkeeper.

She got in the game too late, under international standards. Elsewhere in the world, both girls and boys start playing football at age 4 or 5. She played as a goalkeeper for the SFK for seven years and also for the BiH youth national team, and later also for the senior national team. “Then I began to study at university and at the same time I worked in the catering industry. I came under the influence of bad company and stopped out, and stayed back from the ball for a few years. When I decided to return, coach Samira Hurem gave me a chance and helped me get a job in the club as it was too late for me to start playing again. First I was involved in organisation. Then, all preparations were made for the Champions League and together with Kristina Seslija, the Champions League director, I was involved in all of SFK’s preparations. She recognised my skills and asked me to volunteer in the Mosaic Foundation. I worked for the SFK at the same time. Then, I became a referee, out of my strong desire to continue to maintain close ties with football. First, the BiH Premier League. Thanks to my club, I got a coaching license. Then, I went back to the university to study sports management at the Department of Sports and Physical Education”, Vildana Imamovic explains her beginnings, ups and downs in sport. Today, thanks to her club’s support and friendly environment, she is only three months away from graduating with a sports management degree. Without football, everything would have been different, she says. This year, the SFK 2000 will host for the seventh time the Women’s Championship League Qualifying Tournament. Despite all obstacles to the development of the BiH women’s football, this family made the women playing football even stronger, and they successfully responded to the rules of the Israeli Mossad.
 

A PROFESSIONAL GOALIE AND A SINGLE MOTHER 

Almina Alma Hodzic made her very first steps on the football pitch in Rakovica, near Sarajevo, in the company of boys.

Among passers-by was the man who spotted her and gave her a ride. The SFK 2000 coach Samira Hurem was also in the car. First, she was a player, until the moment she replaced a goalkeeper who had a bad day during practice. “Football really changed my life. I ended up in bad company, drank…I did not believe my life could ever be the way it’s now. I am a single mother. I’ve been alone since the eighth month of my pregnancy. The club helped me and changed my life for the better when I didn’t know what to do. I was 23, and completely confused. Whenever I needed something, the club never said ‘No’ to me, they always said, ‘there will be’. Now I have a daughter. I am the first goalkeeper for the BiH national team, and I am the first goalkeeper for the SFK. I was declared the best female goalkeeper in 2015/16 in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. This is a part of Alma Hodzic’s personal and sports story. Now her daughter cheers her on from the seats. Due to Almina’s mother’s heart disease, the daughter sometimes goes to pre-season preparations. Asked whether she would play as a goalkeeper like her mother, she said she would rather be a striker since “She does not want to jump and fall like mum”. Almina Hodzic comes from a multi-child family; she grew up with five brothers and sisters and is used to making her own money from time to time from her early age. She is known by another nickname, Shot, since she was the national champion of the shot put as an elementary school student, without any training before the first championship. Today, she lives for her child and football. And she makes a living playing football. Not as good as male players, although far better than in the beginning when coach Hurem supported her with her own money to help her come to training.

PREJUDICES AND OBSTACLES OVER THE GOAL-LINE

Whenever football was played in gym class - Vildana Imamovic recalls her school days – it was always the boys, not the girls, who played the game. The girls were given other assignments or did not play at all. She comes from a traditional family which did not approve of her playing football in the beginning, although her father, more than any other family member, supported her. Today, both her father and mother cheer her on from the audience.
There are prejudices against female football referees: during the games played in rural areas, people are yelling at them, “Go home and make a pie”. But over the last five years, especially during the last year, women’s football is growingly visible and accepted. The support from the Football Club FK Sarajevo and their joining the “maroon family” were also important. They have never had their home ground. In Otoka, they had a dressing room set up under the tree. Today, spectators are different. There were more fans in seats at their match against the WFC Rossiyanka than at men’s football league games together. At least 15 people are involved in the organisation of a men’s football game of the lowest division teams. The Champions League games that drew 100 spectators each had been organised by only two women, Vildana Imamovic and Kristina Seslija. 

“Every game requires a first aid room that costs around BAM 1,000, and we don’t have it. So, we borrowed a first aid kit from our doctor who works at the Clinic. She had borrowed it from someone else, I guess. When two games are played at the same time, they are played at two stadiums, and we have only one first aid kit. Two hours before the beginning of a game, a match commissioner checks everything, a doping control room, a first aid room, a dressing room, the field, flags…After she checks it all, Kristina takes her on a longer route from Otoka to Kosevo, via Dobrinja, Lukavica and the transit road. By the time they arrive, we have already brought the first aid kit to Kosevo via the shorter route”, Vildana explains, laughing, the unusual circumstances surrounding prestigious competition games which they host.

WHAT YOU HAVE IS QUITE ENOUGH

In the past, the score line read 20:0 in favour of the Swedish women’s team. Today, the Swedes win – if they win at all – in a penalty shootout, within a goal difference, although a trailer truck full of equipment reaches Bosnia and Herzegovina before they arrive and despite all the benefits they enjoy in their sports career. “What you’ve got is quite enough”, said Almina, always remembering that Swedish or other players can have it all, but not as big a heart as ours. In a match against the WFC Rossiyanka, it was not before the second minute of extra time that a Rossiyanka’s player, who is paid EUR 17,000 a month, scored the first goal. It makes us laugh, knowing how much our players earn, and we say jokingly that it would have been a crying shame if she had not scored a goal for such an amount of money.

The SFK 2000, however, does not lack for team spirit and family solidarity.

“There are so many girls in our team who do not have both parents, most of them do not have one parent. Our team spirit helps them grow into mature women, good women. We are doing our best to be a mother, a father to them, to learn together with them, to encourage them to go to school. Unfortunately, our country’s institutions do not support us. We have been the champion for the last 14 years and a crowned champion twice. One of our players has said that our male counterparts can achieve the results which we have achieved only playing PlayStation games”, club manager Vildana Imamovic says, emphasizing that they received a City Pride award last year. The Olympic Committee declared them the best team and coach Samira Hurem has been named the best national coach. Almina won the Best Goalkeeper award. Also their players were named the best players. They won all the national awards. So they do deserve more media attention and limelight than they get, though without asking, “Why football?”
“The UN Population Fund’s approach to the gender equality issue is based on our strong belief that gender roles may not and should not be those which prevent women and men from reaching their maximum potential, in accordance with their potentials, affinities and needs. In this regard, the Population Fund believes in the transformative power of gender equality which surpasses gender divisions and creates more dynamic, empowering relations in society. Hence our decision to support women’s football in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it demonstrates very clearly and visibly that the primary parameter we use to assess the chances of success of individuals should not be their gender, but effort, commitment and energy they invest”, said Doina Bologa, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative in BiH, commenting on the support to women’s football in BiH. All the challenges they face today are part of an investment in the future and the building of a platform which will help some new generations of girls to roll the ladybird on grass fields without obstruction.

The Sarajevo Football Club provided conditions for the soccer school programme attended by nearly 70 girls aged 4-16, completely free of charge. Senior players are doing their utmost to give young girls every opportunity they did not have, including four training sessions a week. They hope that one day the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Swedish players will have the same playing conditions. For them, football will always be more than just a game.