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From refugee to footballer - the journey of Bosnian Mario Vrancic to Carrow Road

PUBLISHED: 16:57 28 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:20 28 June 2017

Mario Vrancic signs for Norwich City FC.

Mario Vrancic signs for Norwich City FC.

JASON DAWSON ©Jason Dawson

Twenty-three years ago his homeland was in the grip of war.

Mario Vrancic in Darmstadt action last season. Picture: Pascu Mendez/DPAMario Vrancic in Darmstadt action last season. Picture: Pascu Mendez/DPA

Today, Mario Vrancic has made the fine city his new home after signing for Norwich City.

He and his brother arrived in Germany in 1994 seeking asylum from the Bosnian war, which saw more than 100,000 of its people killed as Bosnian Serb forces, led by Radovan Karadzic, conducted a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”.

Players left Sarajevo on the last flights before the city was besieged, and within months the Bosnian game was divided along ethnic lines.

After settling in Germany, Mario, now 28, and his brother, Damir, both began football careers in stories typical of the “mass exodus” of talent leaving the country in the early 1990s.

Vrancic originally comes from Brod, on the southern bank of the Sava river from Slavonski Brod, which straddled the border between Bosnia and Croatia. It would have been one of the first towns to be hit by conflict when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992.

Interviewed for the Refugee 11 documentary while playing for SV Darmstadt 98, Vrancic said he had escaped thanks to his parents.

“After the collapse of Yugoslavia war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said. “My parents saw it coming, thank God. And that is why we came to Germany in 1994. Me, my mother and my brother.”

His father had made his way to Germany first, following a long tradition of guest workers from communist Yugoslavia. The country they left behind was shattered along new borders and ethnic lines.

Vrancic’s home town of Brod would have been hit hard.

Dr Richard Mills, lecturer in Modern European History at the University of East Anglia, said the town was located in a corridor of land which was “the crux of who was going to win the war”.

“From the spring of 1992 onwards, you have a massive assault across Bosnia to carve out as much territory as possible to add to any future Serbian state,” he said. “In the first weeks of the war you have assaults on towns right across the border.

“All of these towns are absolutely destroyed during the war. When Serbian forces came into a town like this, life is very traumatic indeed. First they would decapitate the community.

“Politicians, police chiefs, academics and journalists had very shortened life expectancies. Many were sent off to camps or disappeared.

“The non-Serb civilian population were collected together at schools or sports centres and were sent packing. Suddenly you have a situation where every town is predominantly Serbian.”

After the cleansing, the population of Brod had changed entirely. In 1991 it was 41pc Croat, 33.8pc Serbian, 12.2pc Muslim and 10.6pc Yugoslav. After the war it had a majority of Serbs.

But among the horror of war, football continued. Teams which did not identify as Bosnian remained in the Yugoslav league but competitions continued.

“Very quickly football becomes a means of showing how people on the ground want to divide these territories. By 1994 you have a situation where by you have separate competitions for each of the ethnic groups in Bosnia” said Dr Mills.

The situation improved rapidly after the war. By 2002 the league contained teams from all of Bosnia’s ethnic groups.

“There is very little bad blood among the footballers and their teams. The supporters are a different matter.

“Numerous players have grown up in very similar situations to the Vrancic brothers. They are growing up in a different culture but still with a sense of patriotic belonging and loyalty to their homeland.”

Two years ago, Vrancic was able to play for Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time. At the time he spoke in German newspapers of his immense pride. “No one would be happier than me to play for the national team because Bosnia and Herzegovina is my homeland,” he said. “Regardless of where I would live, that Bosnian spirit and pride is always in me.”

That sense of national pride could have bristled when, arriving in Norwich this month he saw the links to Serbian town Novi Sad.

“He describes himself as a proud Bosnian,” added Dr Mills. “There are many others who embrace a Serbian or Croatian identity openly. He subscribes to the idea of a unified Bosnia.”

“Supporters groups can be bastions of Serbian nationalism, singing songs about indicted war criminals. There has been a simplification of supporters groups - because of ethnic cleansing a majority of clubs have a very mono-ethnic supporter base.

“Novi Sad is unlike the Serbian parts of Bosnia. It is still multi-ethnic and is incredibly diverse.”

Mario Vrancic’s playing history

Vrancic was part of the squad which won the 2008 European Under-19s Championships, a tournament which saw the emergence of players such as Daniel Sturridge and Jordi Alba.

In 2015, he received the go-ahead from FIFA to represent his homeland of Bosnia, being called up to Mehmed Baždarević’s squad in August of that year.

His senior international debut came in September 2015 against Andorra, with Bosnia easing to a 3-0 victory.

Vrancic’s footballing career began as an Academy graduate of FSV Mainz 05 before moving onto SC Paderborn – the home town of City Head Coach Daniel Farke – in 2012.

In his own words, Vrancic’s time with Paderborn was a ‘great success’, helping the club earn promotion from Bundesliga 2 ahead of briefly topping the Bundesliga.

He then linked up with Darmstadt in 2015, spending two years in the ‘City of Science’ before opting to join the

Canaries.

A ‘smart technical player with a brilliant left foot’, Vrančić made 23 Bundesliga appearances last term, scoring four times.

The Bosnian War

Following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of independence (which gained international recognition), the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadžić, mobilised their forces inside the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to secure Serb territory, then war soon spread across the country, accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of the Bosniak and Croat population.

By early 2008, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had convicted 45 Serbs, 12 Croats and 4 Bosniaks of war crimes in connection with the war in Bosnia. The most recent estimates suggest that around 100,000 people were killed during the war. Over 2.2 million people were displaced, making it the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. In addition, an estimated 12,000–20,000 women were raped, most of them Bosniak.

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