While his towering 6ft, 2 inches presence in the box makes him quite a threat in the air, striker Nedo Turkovic is equally adept at playing in compact spaces. That ability has been put to good use since he signed on for Neroca (North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association) FC, currently in top spot in their debut season in the I-League.
It’s a skill the 28-year-old picked up while growing up in war-torn Sarajevo—the capital of what is today known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. At an age when most children chase a ball in open fields, Turkovic was restricted to playing in enclosed spaces.
At the time, Yugoslavia was being fragmented into independent states as turmoil reigned in many parts of Eastern Europe. A referendum vote in 1991 was followed by the declaration of Bosnia’s independence a year later. This didn’t go down well with other factions, triggering the Bosnian War, and upheaval in the lives of locals.
“I started playing at home (as a two- or three-year-old) with my (elder) sister (and only sibling), but soon I was too big for the area. Sarajevo has tall buildings, so I would sneak out and play in the alleys between them. We were safe there because we could not be seen—there was no stepping out as there were (Bosnian Serb paramilitary force) snipers all around," he says.
Going to school was not on the schedule; the only education happened when a parent took the initiative to read to children.
On some mornings, Turkovic would rise to scenes of smoke billowing over the town. At other times, he could hear bombs go off in the distance.
“It was like being in a prison. All conversation would revolve around the war. It was like experiencing many earthquakes in a single day, the ground was shaking all the time. During other times, I thought I would hear an explosion, only to realize it was all in my head," says Turkovic. His recollections are a combination of memories and conversations with family.
There were days when there was no food at home other than rice, while water was rationed to two glasses per person each day. Like most of the town, the supermarkets were shut, and it was a long wait for the siren that would announce the arrival of the relief truck.
“We would line up to receive our quota of food. It was the only time we could walk in the streets without the fear of getting shot at. But the moment the truck was out of sight, the siren would go off again," he says.
There was the option of fleeing the country and heading to relatives in Germany. But they would risk losing their home, in addition to leaving behind his father, who was serving in the Bosnian forces.
There were weeks when the family would go without seeing him. Then one day came news of his father getting shot 12 times.
“The men went to the war front while the women stayed home with the children—that’s just how it was. It took him a long time to recover from the injuries and even longer for us to heal as a family. It’s the first time I realized what the war was all about. Until then, I was just being a child," he says.
Bosnia started rebuilding after the Dayton Peace Agreement of December 1995 ended the war. The years of fighting had left about 100,000 people dead and disrupted the lives of many others.
Though there were no facilities, competition restarted in the capital—one of the first games he remembers watching with his father was the local derby between Željezničar and Sarajevo in the late 1990s.
“The Koševo stadium can host about 35,000 people, though on this day there were fans piling out in the streets. The pitch was terrible but nobody really cared—people were ecstatic to just come to the stadium. It was symbolic—the war had ended and we could finally get on with our lives," he says.
“It was special because it was the first game I watched in a stadium, with my father. In that moment, I knew I wanted to be a footballer."
In 1997, at the age of 8, Turkovic took his first step towards a professional career at the local academy, hoping to emulate his idols, Bulend Biščević and Dželaludin Muharemović. The advent of television added Argentinian Gabriel Batistuta and Italian Alessandro Del Piero to his list of favourites. He went on to play for Željezničar—the club which groomed Edin Dzeko, who then represented the national side (who went on to become Bosnia’s biggest football star).
It was followed by a stint with the Bosnia and Herzegovina Under-19 team; he went on to ply his trade in five countries, including India.
Football in Bosnia has come a long way since, with the team even qualifying for their first World Cup in 2014.
“Everyone is tired of talking about the war. It did not happen as a result of hatred between the people of Bosnia and Serbia—the problem is politics. I have a lot of friends from Serbia today. If the Bosnians lost many people, so did the Serbs," he says.
Two key strikes—a stunning, long-range equalizer on debut against East Bengal on 30 December and a late header for the win against Aizawl on 20 January—have been instrumental in keeping Neroca in the I-League title hunt.
“It was my debut at ‘home’ at the Khuman Lampak stadium (in Imphal). I scored that goal against East Bengal after just coming off the bench and there were some 30,000 people screaming their heads off. It was an incredible feeling," he says.
Turkovic refuses to buy his own home, choosing to live with his parents in Sarajevo. “War snatched a lot of family time for us, and I enjoy nothing more today than spending time at home," he says.
For now though, he is focusing on exploiting the little spaces in the opposition defence to help Neroca continue their dream run.