Asmir Begovic may already be one of the most formidable goalkeepers in the Premier League, but this summer he'll be testing himself against the likes of Lionel Messi's Argentina and Neymar's Brazil in his first major international tournament with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Following on from my interview with his international team-mate, Edin Dzeko, I spoke to Stoke City's star keeper about the importance of English football to his game, his country's proud history of producing exciting and technical footballers, and the game's power to unite people.
Bleacher Report: It’s been one of the Premier League’s most competitive seasons in years with some intense competition at every level of the table. As a goalkeeper, how beneficial could such a season prove to be as preparation for the World Cup this summer?
Asmir Begovic: I think it’s very good preparation. It’s the best league in the world, and I get to play at such a high level week in, week out. That’s the only way to be big-game ready and prepare yourself for a tournament like the World Cup because it’s going to be played at such a high level too.
So you want to be playing games at the highest level possible and obviously, as part of our preparations, we’ve got a couple of very strong friendly matches, and I think it’s important to try and play as many highly competitive games as we can before the World Cup.
B/R: How do the different challenges faced by Bosnia and Stoke at an international and club level compare?
AB: The way it can relate sometimes is that Stoke are maybe a relative team to Bosnia. We are kind of a mid-table team in Europe, if you know what I mean? We are one of the better sides, and obviously Stoke are not a bad side either, but sometimes against the big teams we’re underdogs and have to play with the underdog tag and have that label put upon us.
We have to play accordingly in those games against bigger teams. The games against teams that are similar and in and around us, especially in the World Cup, mean that much more. So I guess the situations are similar in some ways.
B/R: Given the kind of adversity Stoke have so often faced from people who dislike the team’s style of play—especially under Tony Pulis—have you found that your experiences playing through that kind of opposition have helped you to push yourself and others on at the international level?
AB: Yeah, I think so. I think it can work in a positive way because you get to experience different kinds of environments and thoughts of people. You can respond to it in a positive way.
People are always going to have an opinion on what you do, but you have to have a thicker skin and know what it’s like to be in that position, so it’s good to experience that, of course.
B/R: Are there any past players from Bosnian football’s history that you really look up to, or who have helped guide you on to becoming your country’s No. 1 goalkeeper? I know in the past you’ve said that Oliver Kahn was your role model growing up.
AB: Well, I think he was always my main role model because I grew up in Germany. There are some big, big players in Bosnia’s history from when things weren’t going as well as they are now. People like Sergej Barbarez, Muhamed Konjic: These are the leaders of the teams of the past. There are many other people too who went before us.
The generation of players we have now is one of the best generations Bosnia has ever had, and we have been able to take that on what they started, but obviously they lived in more difficult times and kind of made the way for us to do our thing now.
B/R: Do you look to any of the performances from some of the Bosnian players who were part of the former Yugoslavia teams that went to past World Cups? People like Enver Maric at the 1974 World Cup maybe?
AB: Yeah. He was a big, big goalkeeper and someone who, of course, I’ve seen highlights of and actually got the pleasure of speaking to once or twice. You pick their brains a little bit and kind of see what experiences they’ve gone through and see if it in any way relates to you and any way you can use it for a positive effect for yourself.
There’s been a lot of players—and he is probably one of the biggest from the past too—who you would follow. I know Tomislav Piplica, who is our goalkeeping coach now, was a big goalkeeper in his time and who I got to watch when growing up in Germany. So there’s a few big players for sure.
B/R: You played for Canada at U-20 level and have lived in Germany and Canada. What made you decide to switch back to Bosnia as a senior international?
AB: The bottom line is that all through my life, my family were very much Bosnian, and I was born there. It’s the country of my birth. We’ve always remained very Bosnian, but as you said, I did experience different countries and enjoyed every one, and I enjoyed my experience playing for Canada as well at the time. That’s where I was living, that’s where my life was, and I didn’t really think about anything else too much.
When the opportunity came to represent Bosnia, I just couldn’t turn it down: for myself, for future footballing reasons, for my family. Everything’s worked out fantastically, and I’m just very happy that I made the decision and that everything’s worked out really well.
B/R: Bosnia are being touted as one of the most interesting sides to watch at the World Cup from Europe this summer due to your technical style of play. Johan Cruyff has said in the past that total football may not have emerged from The Netherlands had the country not also played hockey.
As someone who’s lived in Canada where ice hockey is a major sport, I was wondering if you thought there were any similar links or origins behind the type of players and football Bosnia produces?
AB: Hockey is somewhat big in the former Yugoslavian countries along with other sports like handball and other quicker team sports. But it is the mentality we have. We have always played attractive, attacking football. It’s just the country’s mentality really, and there’s always seemed to be the players that fitted that style.
Like you say, we could be one of the more attractive sides to watch, but we also have to adapt our game at times to make sure that we play for results. It’s not about being attacking and creative all the time. Sometimes you have to be smart and tactically wise to play a game the right way, so there has to be a balance of both.
B/R: Given how the 1998 World Cup helped to spur on Croatia, both in football and as a nation in terms of image and tourism, are you and your team-mates viewing Brazil 2014 as a similar opportunity to showcase your country to the world?
AB: We consider every big event as an opportunity. I think we, over the last few years, have made people notice Bosnia a little bit more, just through our accomplishments, different games and qualifying campaign. The World Cup can definitely go a long way to putting Bosnia on the map a bit more for people. That’s just a normal thing.
We know that if we play well we’ll grab more attention, but I think if we just make a good impression and play the game to the best of our ability, then we can be an attractive team for people and add some of that feel-good factor as well.
B/R: How far do you think you could go in the summer?
AB: I think that’s difficult to answer. There’s so little time left, but you never know what the situation is going to be like until you get there. It’s our first major tournament, so we’re going there with nothing to lose and just everything to gain, so we’re going to try and make the most of the whole experience.
You know, if we play the way we know we can, and with our qualities, we can definitely get out of the group, and once you get out of the group it gets very interesting in the knockout stages.
Anything could happen then. We’ll take everything as it comes, but we’ll assess our chances nearer the time as the games come along.
B/R: Are there any opponents you’re most looking forward to facing or would like to come up against?
AB: You know what, I think being part of the whole World Cup is just a huge dream for me. Playing against any team or any country is a big honour and a big task and a big challenge as well, so I’ve got no one in particular.
Argentina are obviously the team to beat in our group, but the games against Iran and Nigeria will also be big tests.
B/R: There has been some unrest in Bosnia of late, with street protests back in February. How much do you think that the national team’s World Cup debut could be a unifying force for the country this summer?
AB: We hope it’s going to be a big unifying thing. It’s something we’ve always tried to do, to be a positive influence on our country and our people. You know, politics can sometimes get in the way of peoples’ lives and peoples’ thoughts and make things difficult at times to the point where football can be overshadowed by that.
We just try to stick together, set a good example for a lot of people and hopefully bring our country together and give a few happy times and happy memories.
Read Greg's exclusive Bleacher Report interview with Edin Dzeko on winning another title with Manchester City and his hopes of making a big impact at the 2014 World Cup Brazil.