Football was always an escape.
One morning in May 1992, seven-year-old Vedad Ibisevic was shaken awake by his mother Mirsada. The soldiers were on their way. She led her son and daughter to a hastily-dug hole near their house, in the small Bosnian town of Vlasenica, and warned them to stay put as she left to check in with work.
The soldiers arrived. They turned the Ibisevics' house upside down, but they were never alerted to the presence of the young boy crouching in the makeshift bunker between the trees, along with his sleeping sister. They left, and Mirsada eventually returned with her husband Saban. The family threw their essential belongings into two bags and fled.
These were the early days of the Bosnian War, a conflict that would claim an estimated 100,000 lives between 1992 and 1995. Vedad and his family ultimately managed to escape on a bus to Tuzla, a place of relative safety for Bosniaks. They shared a house with five other refugee families, and remained there until the end of the war. They would stay in Tuzla for the rest of the 1990s.
Vedad had always been a keen footballer, and now it became his passion. On the pitch, he could forget about the horrors of war. He progressed under the tutelage of Nevzet Hasanbasic – a former semi-pro, nicknamed 'The Chief' – who opened his eyes to the world of professional football. By the time he was 16, Vedad was dreaming big, and had been selected for Bosnia's national youth team – but there was more upheaval around the corner.
Watch: Last year, we spoke exclusively with Ibisevic about his childhood in Bosnia and life in the Bundesliga
Unable to make ends meet in Tuzla, the family moved to Switzerland, before making the 7,500-kilometre journey to St. Louis, a city with a huge Bosnian refugee community. Wherever they went, Vedad kept playing. He arrived in the United States with almost no English, but within two years he had graduated high school and earned himself a scholarship to the prestigious Saint Louis University.
After a prolific couple of seasons with St. Louis and Chicago – in which he scored 39 goals in 46 games – Vedad Ibisevic got his big break. He was spotted by fellow Bosnian Vahid Halilodzic, the coach of French giants Paris Saint-Germain, who was on tour in America. Impressed by his young compatriot, Halilodzic offered Ibisevic his first professional contract, and brought him to the French capital for the start of the 2004/2005 season.
Things did not go well. It could be that Ibisevic, who turned 20 the day before the opening game of the season, simply wasn't ready for the big stage. In only his fourth Ligue 1 appearance, he was sent off five minutes after coming on as a substitute for Pauleta. It would be his last top-flight outing for PSG, who loaned him out to second-tier Dijon in the January transfer window.
After a more successful stint in Ligue 2 – ten goals in 34 games – Ibisevic got his first taste of the Bundesliga, the championship that would eventually make him a star. He moved from PSG to Alemannia Aachen, and while he chipped in with six goals and an assist, he couldn't prevent Die Kartoffelkäfer (the 'Potato Beetles') from being relegated in 2006/07.
Now nearly 23, Ibisevic was approaching a major turning point in his career. On 24 March 2007 – before Alemannia's end-of-season capitulation – he made his first senior appearance for the Bosnia and Herzegovina national side, under coach Fuad Muzurovic. Ibisevic played the full 90 minutes on the left wing as Bosnia claimed a 2-1 away win over Norway in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier.
Between his impressive Bundesliga performances and his new-found international status, Ibisevic caught the eye of Ralf Rangnick, who had just spent his first season in charge of the highly ambitious Hoffenheim. Languishing down in the eighth division in the early 1990s, the club had flown through the divisions in the early 2000s thanks to the investment of local software billionaire Dietmar Hopp.
Rangnick had just got Hoffenheim promoted to the second tier, and now had his sights firmly fixed on the Bundesliga. 'The Professor' had recognised Ibisevic's talent, and would come to have no regrets about signing him in the summer of 2007. While the young Bosnian had a relatively quiet first campaign – five goals and two assists – Hoffenheim secured their historic promotion, and prepared to take the Bundesliga by storm.
In their maiden top-flight campaign – eerily foreshadowing the future achievements of RB Leipzig – Hoffenheim enjoyed a stunning Hinrunde, finishing the first half of the Bundesliga season in top spot and earning the unofficial title of autumn champions. Ibisevic played a vital role in their success, racking up an incredible 18 goals and seven assists in just 17 outings. He scored five braces, including a memorable double in the 4-1 thrashing of Borussia Dortmund.
Agonisingly for Hoffenheim, though, and for Ibisevic in particular, he suffered a cruciate ligament tear during the winter break, which ruled him out for the rest of the season. Hoffenheim lost their cutting edge, and slumped to a 12-match winless streak. They eventually finished seventh, failing to even qualify for Europe. The 'what if...?' presumably haunts their supporters to this day.
Ibisevic had proven that he had the potential to be a top-class striker, and perhaps even follow in the footsteps of his illustrious compatriot Sergej Barbarez – the first ever Bosnian to finish as the Bundesliga's top scorer. Could he also take a tilt at the Torjägerkanone?
Returning from injury in 2009/10, Ibisevic had another solid campaign, with 12 goals and six assists – including a fantastic 21-minute hat-trick against his future club, Hertha Berlin. He spent another season and a half with Hoffenheim, before joining three-time Bundesliga winners VfB Stuttgart in January 2012. The Swabians had been having an up-and-down season, but thanks to eight goals in 15 games from Ibisevic, they finished sixth to reach the UEFA Europa League.
He enjoyed his most successful season with Stuttgart in 2012/2013. As well as notching up 15 goals in 30 Bundesliga outings, he grabbed five in the Europa League and four in the DFB Cup, where Stuttgart were beaten 3-2 by Bayern Munich in a thrilling final. Ibisevic soon recovered from the disappointment. He scored a superb hat-trick against former club Hoffenheim the following September, before one of the biggest moments of his career, and arguably his life.
On 15 October 2013, he scored the only goal in Bosnia and Herzegovina's 1-0 win over Lithuania, which secured the country's first ever qualification for the FIFA World Cup. It was a momentous occasion, which saw tens of thousands of supporters line the streets of Sarajevo to give the team a hero's welcome.
After an injury-affected 2014/15, Ibisevic's Bundesliga journey led him to the capital. He joined Hertha Berlin on loan in the summer of 2015, before the move was made permanent in 2016. Promoted to club captain by coach Pal Dardai, the Bosnian enjoyed a terrific start to the current campaign, with six goals and three assists in his first eight games.
The 2016/17 campaign also saw Ibisevic reach a number of significant milestones. He scored his 20th Bundesliga brace against Hamburg on Matchday 6 – just hours after his wife Zerina had given birth to their daughter – surpassing Barbarez as the Bundesliga's all-time leading Bosnian marksman. He scored his 100th Bundesliga goal with another double against Mainz on Matchday 12, before celebrating his 250th appearance in the German top flight on Matchday 23.
Ibisevic's accomplishments speak for themselves. The young boy who was forced to hide in a hole and flee his home, to escape the horrors of warfare, has grown into one of the true stars of the Bundesliga. A prolific goalscorer, an inspirational leader and captain, he is a true testament to how the human spirit can overcome adversity. Football was always his escape, but he made it his life.
"There are so many unforgettable moments. It's been a real honour!" Vedad #Ibisevic has retired from international duty after 82 games and 28 goals for Bosnia-Herzegovina 👏 #hahohe pic.twitter.com/RvRi2U04z3— Hertha Berlin (@HerthaBSC_EN) 11. November 2017