Vedad Ibisevic returns home (sort of) for tonight’s soccer friendly at Busch

ST. LOUIS — Vedad Ibisevic can’t remember when he most recently played a soccer match in St. Louis.

“That is a good question,” he said Sunday night. “A long, long time ago.”

He figures it was 10 years ago, when he was a freshman at Saint Louis University. As a 19-year-old, Ibisevic was named NCAA Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-American while leading the Billikens to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. That would be his lone season at SLU as his success quickly led to the start of a prosperous professional career in Europe. A few years later, he would become a mainstay on the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team.

It’s safe to say Ibisevic isn’t likely to forget his next match in his old stomping grounds.

The 29-year-old midfielder will return as a hero when he takes the field at Busch Stadium on Monday night for a friendly matching his national team against world power Argentina. And for a greater reason than being a local lad turned international star.

Last month, Ibisevic scored the goal that put Bosnia-Herzegovina in the World Cup for the first time. In the 68th minute of a scoreless game, standing unguarded in front of the Lithuanian goal, he took a crossing pass and kicked it in for what would become a 1-0 victory.

For someone who grew up dreaming of playing in the World Cup, this was as big as hitting a walkoff homer in the seventh game of the World Series or scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Given what his native country has endured since the early 1990s, it was even bigger.

When the team returned to Sarajevo from Kaunas, Lithuania, in the middle of the night, Ibisevic and his Bosnia-Herzegovina teammates were welcomed by thousands of their countrymen. Eighteen years after its first international match, a country still rebuilding following a vicious war in the 1990s had a reason to celebrate.

“It was an amazing feeling to know that we made these people happy who really had tough time living in Bosnia, living through all these years,” Ibisevic said. “It was crazy, not only for me but everybody.”

Ibisevic lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where he plays for VfB Stuttgart in the country’s Premier Soccer League. He doesn’t spend much more time in Bosnia than he does in St. Louis, where he says he usually visits twice a year to see his parents. His family left its home when he was a young teen because of the strife and found its way to South City along with thousands of others from Bosnia.

St. Louis is considered home to one of the largest Bosnian communities outside of Sarajevo, with more than 70,000 having settled here over the past two decades. Many of the immigrants have gone downtown the past couple of days to try to catch a glimpse of their soccer team. Though the team’s workout Sunday night was supposed to be closed to the public, hundreds found their way to Busch Stadium and were allowed in to watch the hour-long practice.

Already an aspiring soccer player when he landed in St. Louis, Ibisevic was in for a surprise when he went out for the team at Roosevelt High.

“I was expecting a normal pitch and more players on the team,” he said. “There were like six or seven guys and I think we put four rocks (down for sideline markers) and played three against three. That was our trial for the season. It was pretty shocking for me but even then, I didn’t give up my dream. I’m proud to have continued.”

Now he has returned for a match that he isn’t likely to forget.

“It’s great to be back, especially with the success that we have with our national team,” he said. “It’s amazing, but it feels good.”

NOTES

The absence of the great Lionel Messi, out with a hamstring injury, is not only disappointing to prospective ticket buyers, but to Argentina’s opponent. “We were all excited to be playing against Messi,” Ibisevic said. “Messi is definitely one of the greatest players of all time. There are also other great players on the team. I’m looking forward to them.”

Without Messi, Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Safet Susic said he considers Argentina one of the top six teams in the world. With him, “top four,” he said.

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella pretty much agrees. With or without Messi, he said he considers Brazil, Spain and Germany to be favorites for next year’s World Cup. Argentina played its first match without Messi last Friday, tying Ecuador 0-0 in a friendly at East Rutherford, N.J.

This will be Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first match since its World Cup qualifying win over Lithuania.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.