Football brings people together. But forget about the World Cup, that’s just watching. Go to any British airport on a Friday in early summer; chances are you will see groups of men with sports bags slung over their shoulders heading abroad for an end of season tour.
These tours are now a niche sector of the travel industry with agents who find teams for you to play in Rome, Berlin or wherever. My Sunday morning team, called Kenchels (it began life as the social services department team of Kensington and Chelsea), has done many such tours. But this year was special. We went to play in a European city that seven years ago was under siege: Sarajevo.
Why Sarajevo? Our captain, Robin Moore, works for Logica and had sold a software product to the Bosnian central bank. The bank is run by a foreigner (New Zealander Peter Nicholl). Under him are vice-presidents from the three former warring groups: a Croat, a Muslim and a Serb. Robin befriended Muslim vice-president Kemal Kozari´c. . They found a mutual interest in football and Kemal suggested that Robin bring his team to play a couple of local veterans teams-veterans, not of war (although some of them are that too) but of football. Veterans football in Britain means forty-something blokes trying to stay half-fit while enjoying some camaraderie. In Bosnia, as we discovered, it can mean something altogether superior.
So one Saturday at the end of May I was standing between the posts (I am the keeper) trying to keep out a hail of shots from the veterans of Medjugorje. The town is three hours south of Sarajevo. The journey to it follows the Neretva river, with its strange turquoise water, past towns like Mostar that we all recalled from the war. The country flashing by outside our coach looked less desolate than I had expected. There were smart cars and houses being built. About $5.5 billion in aid has flowed into Bosnia since 1995. People say much of it has vanished in corruption and that the only industry around Sarajevo is servicing the 10,000-strong international community.
Medjugorje, however, is a town of Catholic pilgrimage and thanks to tourism looks affluently west European. It is in a Croat part of the country where people say they are Croats first, Herzegovinans second. (Bosnia’s 3.6m people live in either the Croat-Muslim federation or a Serb republic…