In a sense, my life started with football. I was born in the maternity hospital next to the Kosovo stadium and my parents also had an apartment next to the stadium. I started playing football as a child, and it eventually became my professional life. I have spent over 40 years in football. I have had beautiful moments and I am happy that I was raised through sport.
I was playing for F.K. Sarajevo when Radovan Karadžić was appointed as our sports psychologist. At the time, ideas about psychological training were only just emerging, but all the clubs had psychologists. To us young 20 year old guys, the whole thing seemed rather funny. At that time Karadžić was the Head of the Neuropsychiatric clinic in Kosovo, and he also wrote children’s books. The Karadžić that we knew seemed completely harmless—we were always making fun of him and joking with him. But when the war started, he transformed into a completely different person.
Our team had players from every region and religion, and Karadžić had taught us that we could only win together, playing as one team. Then, when he entered politics, he talked only about one religion and one people.
For those of us who knew him before the war, this was difficult to understand. Even today I cannot believe that these two personas were actually one person.
When the war broke out in Bosnia, and Sarajevo was surrounded, I was offered the chance to leave with NATO forces. But I couldn’t leave. Sarajevo is the city I was born in. I was an idol to many generations while playing for F.K. Sarajevo. Therefore I considered it my duty to remain in the city that created me, shaped me both as an idol and as a human being. I was proud of that city before the war, it was a city of rainbow colours, in which East and West were mixed, a city of sounds from all over the world. You could walk down the street and see churches, synagogues, and mosques. You could hear the sounds of the bells and the muezzin. All of us felt pride in it.
Before the war, after finishing my football career I was the owner of a gallery and I couldn’t have been happier. The war returned me back to football. As everybody knew me through football and my football role, I realised it was through football that I would be able to make any significant impact. The decision to open a football school came from the realisation that the children of Sarajevo were endangered the most by war. They had no life, activities, playing time, fantasies, nothing. We all love football so much in this country, so football could provide an opportunity for children to gather and to start dreaming their own dreams, even in war.
The school was multi-ethnic because that was the normal thing before the war. We all grew up together. We all had mixed marriages. I am Orthodox, but married a Catholic. My daughter married a Muslim and we have always been happy about that. The friends that I was playing football with were praying in the mosque, and that was not a problem of any kind to us. The mission of sport is a human one—it does not know any borders. We made the announcement on the radio “Predrag Pašić opens an academy for future champions in Sarajevo”. We expected six or seven kids as it was wartime, and the circumstances were unbearable, but at our first training session some 300 boys showed up. That left us speechless. Those children gave us the power to survive. The moment we saw those boys in training and saw them dreaming about having football careers in the future, we realised we were on the right path. Their dreams were so much stronger than the feelings of hate.
Every day of the war, children came to train and they were happy to come. We could hear the sounds of the war outside, the shelling, the shots of the snipers. Some of the children’s parents were in opposing armies but because of the power of football, there was no tension on the pitch, everyone was playing together peacefully. The children simply did not understand hate. They saw that everyone was the same, and this idea was reinforced through the unifying power of sport. I have always believed in the philosophy of sport, those ideas around fair play and respecting your opponent. Our energy was coming from the children, from their desire to fight all that was happening around them.
Their desire to have a normal life, in spite of the war, was the same desire that we grownups had. This desire brought us together and gave us a tremendous strength to survive. For us in Sarajevo, courage manifested in the daily struggle to survive.
Every citizen of Sarajevo, in my opinion was a hero, every single day. Our acts of courage were the struggle for food, struggle for water, through the desires of those who organised cultural community action events in spite of the war.
Actually, through our determination to try and live as normal a life as possible in spite of the evil that was happening all around us. This work at the football school has been the highlight of my football career. Most people don’t even know about the work I do at the school—they know me mostly as a football star—but it has been the highlight of my entire life’s work. Now we have several schools across the country. We have Bosniak, Serb and Croat kids—they get to know each other, learn to accept differences. They travel across majority lines within the country to tournaments and play together when we pick an international team. Kids that wouldn’t even get the chance to meet are playing wearing the same shirt, on the same team.
I was approached a few years ago to take part in Football Rebels, a documentary series with Eric Cantona about footballers doing something positive for their own people. At first it was very difficult for me to tell my story, but then I saw this film in Paris about football players trying to do something great off the football pitch. That’s what inspired me to get involved with the Football Rebels series and speak out.
We do not see enough courage today in Bosnia. Unfortunately, the struggle we went through in the war has turned us into observers today: observers of human rights violations, of segregation, of pillage. We have developed this new custom from the war—to be satisfied as long as we have food and water. We don’t seem to have the motivation to be brave again.
We owe it to the victims to have the courage to change the legacy of the war and Bosnia today.