In Chicago midfields, Hemon discovers transcendental soccer nation

Hemon does not use the word “obsession” to describe his connection to football. But he is clearly an engaged mystic, delighting in the vision of a park player from Tibet minding goal during a thunderstorm: “The ground is giving off vapour, the mist touching their ankles, and at moments it seems that they’re levitating a few inches above the ground, untouched by the flood.”

In the Nov 12 interview, conducted before the two-leg World Cup qualifying playoff between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Portugal, we discuss Hemon’s evolving regard for the team coached by Miroslav Blazevic. Before the 0–2 aggregate loss, Hemon sounds edgy about the fever gripping fans back home. For his friends abroad, he says, “Everything depends on the Bosnia match. That is the only good thing happening in Bosnia. There might be too much expectation for them there. If they go to the World Cup, then it will seem that we are all right, then the country is all right. It will allow for a lot of national fantasizing. Everyone is speaking about it. It’s the most important thing that has happened in Bosnia since the war, by far.”

But we start by talking about the soccer culture of the Sarajevo from youth and, in particular, about Hemon’s memory of matches on the streets. Hemon never competed within a league structure. Soccer’s everyday quality resonates within detail from the recent story collection, Love and Obstacles. Hemon conjures the “heartbreakingly green” pitch at the club he grew up supporting, FK Zeljeznicar. The stadium in the Grbavica section stood on the front line of war. According to Jonathan Wilson in Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, players and club officials had to clear the pitch of mines when the Sarajevo siege finally lifted.

In “The Conductor,” Hemon positions the narrator in sight of boys trying to retrieve a soccer ball trapped in a Miljacka River whirlpool. He thinks of “a device I had used once upon a time on my own lost ball: a crate is strung on a rope that stretches from bank to bank, and boys on either bank hold the ends of the rope, manipulating it until the ball is caught.”

In one sentence, Hemon conveys a vital anthropological snippet that speaks to transmission of culture—the ball-retrieval technique has been passed from one generation to the next—to cooperation between fellows and to the value of a totemic object, the ball, that permits social interaction.

Hemon saw many balls swirling in such Miljacka River pools. He competed on a Sarajevo playground that featured a slide near one of the goals. The following transcript picks up with this recollection.

Interview with Aleksandar Hemon, 12 November 2009

AH: If you were running toward the goal and wanted to score you had to duck and go under the slide. And all those who had not grown up in that particular neighborhood playing on the playground would get hurt. In school there were no school teams. There were no coaches, few school tournaments.

GG: Was this a good soccer education? Were there good players?

AH: There were particular kind of players—players who are very skillful with the ball, much like Brazilian players. Any Brazilian players who grew up playing on the beach and juggling the ball have this tremendous talent. The great players need to enter a system where their talent is converted into something lasting. There were some good players in the former Yugoslavia who entered the academies of larger clubs, and they were trained well.

In some ways it’s like chess. You can be talented at playing chess, but at some point you hit this ceiling. You cannot outsmart yourself unless you start studying the games or practicing and playing against the great players. I suppose I never entered that next level.

GG: [Eduardo] Galeano says as a youth player he aspired to make words do what he could not do with the ball. Did you have that experience or did you have other aspirations of being a footballer?

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