A TEAM OF THEIR OWN

They fled war-torn nations and came to St. Louis. They pursued their passion for soccer at Soldan High -- and got a coach who didn't know the game. Then the real lessons began.

Coralic, like most of the 300 Bosnian students at Soldan, doesn't hang out much with American kids. The Bosnian parents don't encourage it, and because Bosnians make up one-third of the school's population and because there are Bosnian restaurants, stores and coffeehouses all over the city's South Side, it's not hard not to.

And it's not as if American kids his age could ever understand what he or any of the others had been through anyway, what they saw or what they dreamed about at night.

"When we left my city in Bosnia," Coralic says, "I remember waving goodbye to my uncle, and we were all crying. The Serbs occupied the city, and they opened up labor camps for the Muslims and the Croats, and they started taking people away from their homes and just killing them. My dad and my brothers were in labor camps for several weeks, but they returned home, thank God.

Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, 
Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."
James Hammond
Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."

"You got attacked by normal civilians, people you knew yesterday as friend but who attacked you today because you're Muslim. The area that we lived in was 90 percent Serbian and 10 percent Muslim, and we heard from my uncle that all of the Muslims in the town were killed -- all of them. There were 27,000 Muslims and Croats killed just in my city."

Coralic's family left Bosnia in August 1993, one year after the fighting started, and moved to Germany, where they stayed for four years until being deported to the United States. In every place he lived, even here in the United States, he played soccer. It was the one constant amid all the stuff. In the space of five years, Coralic lived in three different countries, learned two new languages and grew to know change like a neighbor. When he got to St. Louis in '97, he had only one question about the new school:

"Do they have a soccer team?"

Soldan did, and at this particular moment, that team was losing to SLUH 1-0.

At halftime, the coaches called the players together and asked them to join hands. Most of the hurried pep talk was a jumble of you-can-beat-this-team-if-you-play-together kind of stuff, but then they got the psychological boost they needed.

"You're the best players in the district," Coach Hammond said. "You call yourself Bosnians? Well, go out there and play like it!"

As they ran back out onto the field, inspiration competed with adrenaline in the players' veins. Says Vedmir Vranjkovina: "We were motivated to win. Everybody was. Everybody ran after the ball. You can be a good player, but you still have to fight to reach something. You can be a good player, but if you stand around, it brings you nothing. You have to fight to do everything, and everybody was running and fighting to get the ball."

SLUH never scored another goal.

Come on, guys, show me something. Show me something.

Soldan scored twice.

"It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."

At last year's youth summer camp at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, Muhamed Hasic, the imam who ran the program, let the Bosnian kids work off steam by playing soccer behind the building. Focusing on the sheer pleasure of the game, says Hasic, gave the boys a respite from the difficulties enveloping their new lives in the United States.

"I try to lead them to be good in school, to go to college and to be away from things like drugs," Hasic says. "If you don't, you could end up on the streets or flipping hamburgers for the rest of your life at McDonald's and not be able to live on your own -- and forget about ever helping your parents or anybody else."

Hasic continues to counsel many Bosnian teenagers in the area, because, he says, they are beset with emotional and social problems unique to foreign-born war refugees, including dealing with the loss of family members and with the loss of just being a family. "So many of the parents here are working many more hours than they were used to back home, so they don't have the time to spend with their kids, who are left alone in front of the TV or on the streets," Hasic says. "They have to pay the bills by working 12 hours a day. It's something they can't control."

As for the Bosnian teenagers, Hasic says soccer may be therapeutic. "Soccer isn't so popular for American kids, but they are probably -- how can I say it? -- more innocent than kids from big cities," he says. "They focus on playing for the pleasure of it."

After the win against the SLUH junior varsity, Hammond didn't let up on the training. Every day it was the same -- weight lifting followed by running, followed by drills, followed by soccer.

The team was pulling together. They were passing more, learning to communicate out on the field, and Soldan's players were topping the leader charts of the Public High League: Elzir Kafedic, 16 goals and seven assists; Vedmir Vranjkovina, 15 goals and eight assists; Mersad Ganic, 12 goals and 12 assists. So far, Edin Coralic was the overall goalie leader with nine wins, three shutouts and no losses at all.

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