Edin Dzeko looks as if he wants to jump up from the chair. He is animated. His cheeks are red and he gesticulates wildly. “I don’t run? I don’t give my best? Come on! That is a joke,” he says. “I can guarantee that no one in the stands or in front of the TV wants us to win games more than I do! Any match, I don’t care who we play against or what we play for, I just want to score a goal or my team to score a goal so that we win the match. Every match I give my very best. Every single match.”
It is a moment that encapsulates what the Bosnia-Herzegovina striker is all about. He has been described as being indifferent and cold but when we meet in an empty hotel restaurant on the outskirts of Sarajevo he is neither. Instead he is extremely passionate about the game, more perhaps than any other player I have interviewed, and a man who realises how lucky he is to play football for a living.
Dzeko agreed to a half-hour interview with the Guardian but in the end we spend two hours talking about growing up in Bosnia during the war, his spells at Wolfsburg and Manchester City, his thoughts on Manuel Pellegrini – one word – his move to Italy and his plans for the future.
But first, something close to his heart. Dzeko is the best goalscorer his country has had, he has won league titles with Wolfsburg and Manchester City, and last season he was the capocannoniere, the top goalscorer in Serie A – yet he seems to be permanently criticised. He misses too many chances, it is claimed, he is too lazy and the worst one, as far as Dzeko is concerned, he does not care.
His take on the criticism is interesting. He accepts it from the people in the industry he respects, the people who have football knowledge, but is less understanding when it comes on social media. “I know people will criticise when you play bad; that is part of this job and I am fine with that. That is not a problem. The problem is the insults. That is what hurts the most. This is the time of social media and everyone has a chance to publicly say what they think. No matter how illogical or stupid it is. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, everyone is entitled to insult you because you did not score or play well. People think that they care more than I do – but that is simply not true.
“It’s never easy to read headlines like that, to hear fans shouting things like that. You know that you are better than that, that you can play much better, but sometimes it is difficult to turn things around. What people do not see is that you are a human being too and that you have problems like everyone else.
“I would lie if I tell you that I don’t listen or read what people say. I do. I ignore the insults and irrational things but I like to watch and read what educated football people have to say, people who analyse things, especially in Italy. They know football, they try to do it in depth and as someone involved in the game I do enjoy some articles or programmes. Did I read in England? No, to be honest, I did not. I don’t know why, maybe simply because I knew English better; in Italy I needed all the help to learn the language as fast as possible, so I’ve read a lot and kept the habit. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree, but I respect their opinion.”
I don’t feel like I am able to say that I had childhood, not in a way normal kids my age had
Criticism is something Dzeko has had to live with throughout his career. Despite being only 18 when he made his debut for Zeljeznicar Sarajevo, Dzeko – then a lanky target man mockingly nicknamed “kloc”, a colloquial term probably best translated as a (wooden) log – he had to move abroad to get a proper chance. Zeljeznicar considered the €25,000 fee from the Czech side Teplice to be akin to winning the lottery.
Two years later Dzeko joined Wolfsburg, where he scored 66 goals in 111 appearances, winning the Bundesliga in 2008-09 and the Golden Boot the season after. He also established himself as a first‑choice striker in a fast-improving national team. In a short time he had gone from being called a log to being the most popular athlete and biggest star in the modern history of Bosnia‑Herzegovina. Surely it was what he dreamed about when growing up?
“Well, to be honest, I don’t feel like I am able to say that I had a childhood, not in a way normal kids my age had. I had something that was specific to Bosnia in 90s, something I call a period of survival. I was a kid when the war broke and I was not aware of most of the things, but war makes you grow up faster, forces you to learn things you would never learn and live life differently.
“I always loved football, I couldn’t breathe without football, even during the war, but I never gave a thought to being a star. Of course, we all dream about doing big, playing for big clubs, but I wanted to play football because of the love for the game. And I still do. I love the game, I love to watch it, to read about it, to talk about it and most of all, to play it. It’s my first love and this is why I still don’t see myself as a ‘star’. I see myself as lucky.”
How often does he think about the war? Dzeko stops, stares at me and catches me off guard with a counter-question: how often do I think about the war? We are about the same age and went through the same horror and have the same nightmares. Almost never, I answer honestly. He chuckles and gives an explanation for both of us.
“I think the only time I talk about the war is when I talk to foreign journalists. I never talk about the war with my family, with my wife, my parents, sister. I do remember it very well but I don’t see the point. It’s something I left behind long ago. It was a terrible experience, it changed us all, no matter how old you were at the time. But when it was finished we all tried to move on. During those three years everyone, even kids, dreamed to live a normal life, so after the war finished, we just did that.”
He then pauses for a long time, before saying: “However, when things are bad, when I am going through difficult times, I do think about everything my family and I went through. Take football, for example; I hate to lose, I hate when I miss chances, but things like that must happen in football. Then you sit down, think about what was a really terrible thing in your life, times when you didn’t have anything to eat, drink or normal clothes to wear, you and everyone around you. And you see that things are good now. It’s weird to use the word positive in this context, but if there is a positive from what we survived it is the fact that we are now aware that there is always worse in life. And we experienced worse in first person.”
In 1995 the Dayton peace agreement was signed to end the war in Bosnia, but it left a society both divided and in limbo. The country has been a political and organisational mess for 20 years. According to Bosnia’s national statistics agency the average net salary is £390 a month and every sixth household lives in poverty. The estimated unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 is 62.8%, the highest in the world.
There is no system, no plan for how to make things better and people here are getting more and more pessimistic
Dzeko is a Unicef ambassador and helps several organisations and individuals across Bosnia. “The first thing I notice when I come home is that the country is not improving, not going forward,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my country, it’s the most beautiful place on earth and my home. But people are struggling to live a normal life here and it seems not many care. I hate to talk about politics, I avoid that whenever I can, but here politicians are living in their own bubble, distant from people. There are many who barely survive. We try to help as best we can, but donating money is not always a solution.
“We build a roof for one family today, 10 more families need it tomorrow. We help one or two or 10 sick kids, but thousands of them need help. There is no system, no plan for how to make things better in the future and people here are getting more and more pessimistic for a reason. Young people are leaving the country, looking for a better life and no one can judge them. I did the same, in my line of business; left my country in the quest for a better life. As someone who loves his country I hate seeing things like this. It really hurts me.”
After winning two league titles with Manchester City, together with an FA Cup and a League Cup, Dzeko moved to Roma
in the summer of 2015. Eight league goals in 31 appearances prompted Italian media to see him as the flop of the season, and the fans nicknamed him Edin Cieco
, Blind Edin.
How things have changed. He finished the 2016-17 season with 29 league goals, more than Gonzalo Higuaín, Mauro Icardi, Dries Mertens, et al. He is now settled in the Italian capital. “Nothing compares to Rome,” Dzeko says. “Nothing. People there are crazy about football, in a positive way. The expectations were big in Germany, bigger in England, but nothing even close to Rome. It’s a special city, with a special bond with a club and people adore it. In Manchester I could go out for a dinner or for a walk; people would stop me and politely ask for a photo from time to time. In Rome it is impossible for me to walk normally in the city. They are passionate, love their club and their players and the attention is enormous. And that kind of attention and passion raises expectations and pressure. But I am not saying this in a negative way. I love how things work there, because passion and love is what football is supposed to be about.”
Dzeko describes himself as “a football freak”. “I watch football all the time. All the leagues, all the matches I can. No matter the level, no matter the teams. On a team bus I watch football on my tablet or phone and then when I have free time on weekends at home, I sit on my sofa and watch football again. Any league – Bosnian league, La Liga, Premier League and mostly Serie A.”
He believes that helps him on the pitch. “I can see good and bad sides of teams we play against, defenders I play against. I look for that space, their movement, to weaknesses the opposition have.”
Dzeko spent five season at City, scoring 72 goals in 189 appearances, including 50 in 130 Premier League games. His goal in the dying minutes against Queens Park Rangers in May 2012 gave City and Sergio Agüero the opportunity to score a last-second winner and end a 44-year title drought. “I love Manchester, I really do,” Dzeko says. “It’s a lovely city, lovely people and I really enjoyed it there. Some of my best memories are related to Manchester, to the title-winning team, to that crazy QPR match.”
He talks fondly of Roberto Mancini but what about Manuel Pellegrini, the Italian’s successor as manager? Dzeko stops for a second, looks at my phone which records our conversation and says that he was “OK”. That’s it, I ask? He grins.
He scored 72 goals for Manchester City and 15Fifteen of Dzeko’s goals for City came as a substitute, including two at Old Trafford in 2011. “That was always special, playing Manchester United. I loved the feeling of the derby, that pressure, the atmosphere around it. And I did have some good matches there, didn’t I? I love the rivalry, it reminds me of my childhood, when I used to prepare for the Sarajevo derby for days.”
In nine matches against Chelsea, where Roma play on Wednesday, Dzeko failed to score. Chelsea are, with Sunderland and Burnley, one of only three Premier League teams he did not manage a goal against. “They are a very good team,” he says. “I watch the Premier League every weekend and I was impressed with them last season. Conte gave them a different dimension, I would call that an Italian dimension. They are packed with fantastic individuals and a joy to watch, and no team can say it will be easy to go to Stamford Bridge and beat them. They are one of the teams that can win the Champions League
What about Roma? “Well, we are not here to win the Champions league. We have different goals, different class. The first aim is to reach the knockout stages.”
Dzeko’s less immediate aims are clear. “I don’t even think what will I do after I stop playing. I have three years of contract and I don’t think this is my last contract. I just want to enjoy. I just want to score goals. And win. As long as possible.”