Vedad Ibisevic: From Bosnia to Bundesliga via the Billikens

4/12/2013
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Wednesday night's international friendly between Bosnia & Herzegovina and the USA was always going to have special meaning for one player in particular.

And what is now becoming customary for Vedad Ibisevic, he marked the occasion with a goal against a country that gave him his first crucial opportunity on his path to professional football.

The VfB Stuttgart striker won his 47th cap for Bosnia & Herzegovina in Sarajevo, scoring the second goal in a blistering start from the hosts, but found himself on the losing end of a 3-2 result.

While Ibisevic is now an established Bundesliga presence – with 24 goals in all competitions in 2012/13 for the Swabians – the 29-year-old has travelled a long and winding road to get to where he is.

And a central component of his journey in football was provided by the very country he was striving to inflict defeat upon on Wednesday night.

Ibisevic moved to Switzerland with his family when he was 16 after the outbreak of war, before moving to the United States 10 months later to reunite with relatives on the East Coast of Missouri.

The 29-year-old and his sister, who still lives in St Louis, are Green Card holders and Ibisevic spends his close season stateside with American-based family.

While Ibisevic was discovering a devastating goalscoring touch in the college soccer scene for St Louis Billikens – which would draw eyes from Paris Saint-German scouts after 18 goals in 22 games – he was still dabbling in International Business at St Louis University.

Collegiate football in the United States and his unstable upbringing has shaped the Ibisevic starring in the Bundesliga today. Humble, determined and a passionate family man, the environment was a good starting point for the Bosnian international.

Different experience

“It was a very different experience. In my case, it was a light journey that brought me to college football,” he tells Sport360° in an exclusive interview.

“I was just wanted to make the best out of it, but it definitely isn’t easy for a young footballer to play in college leagues and get prepared for the professional game.

“The level is pretty good and there are a lot of good players, but the feeling of the competition is really different.

“It’s a good possibility if football doesn’t work, professionally, so by going to school, you get the other chances. But I always wanted to be a professional, so there was no Plan B. “I would have found another way if I found it hard.”

Ibisevic left the States for Paris in 2004, but his stint in France lasted less than two years when chances at PSG were limited and flanked by a loan-spell at Dijon. Germany was the next destination on an already whistle stop tour at the age of 21.

And there is no doubt the Bosnian has found comfort in German football. It’s the place he calls home, which started out at Alemannia Aachen, before the deep pockets of Dietmar Hopp took him to Bundesliga-aspiring rookies Hoffenheim.

Four months in, Ibisevic had smashed 18 goals in 17 league matches in the German top-flight, leading the Bundesliga ahead of their late hinrunde clash with Bayern Munich.

The unthinkable was indeed unthinkable as Ibisevic picked up a cruel knee ligament injury that derailed Hoffenheim in the second half of the season.

No regrets

Asked if he has any regrets during that time, he says: “Not anymore.”

“I used to think about it a lot, especially for a few years after,” he continues. “But it was a while ago, and I’m happy now, playing well, scoring goals, so I don’t think about it. It was really difficult in that time because there were a lot of questions not answered.

“Firstly, what would I have achieved for the whole team if nothing changed? If it happened, it’s meant to be. I’m very glad I came back from the injury and I’m playing really successfully.

“I was just too long at the one time in Hoffenheim. I needed a change and some new motivation. I feel it was the right decision, and that’s something you can see on the pitch.

“I’m happy when playing now, that’s important.”

Since his £4m move to VfB Stuttgart, the smile – and clinical goalscoring prowess – has returned to Ibisevic in the Bundesliga.

Scoring all of the Swabians’ goals this season in the league, Cup and Europe, his record in the German top-flight with Hoffenheim and Stuttgart stands at 67 goals in 138 matches (he also scored six goals for Aachen in the Bundesliga).

Four of those goals were scored in each of the first four rounds of the German Cup as Stuttgart reached the final; falling at the last hurdle to an all-conquering Bayern Munich side after a thrilling 3-2 contest.

Aiming high

While there is bound to be heartache from getting so close to a major trophy, Ibisevic looks back at the occasion with nothing but fond memories.

“It was my first final,” he recalls. “I cannot explain how awesome that is, really.

“The happiest time for me in football, for sure – and I want to play in more. It’s not easy for us, but we have three competitions to make that happen.

“The other teams are getting better and they will want to play internationally, too. Like I said, the feeling of getting close to titles is amazing, but it will be difficult to repeat that.”

Just 72 hours separate tonight’s friendly with the United States and Saturday’s league match with Bayer Leverkusen, but international football means something special to Ibisevic.

Five wins from six World Cup qualifiers s put Bosnia in an excellent position to reach their first major international championship since the split of Yugoslavia in 1993. Ibisevic already has four goals to his name, but admits the team aren’t getting ahead of themselves just yet.

He adds: “We are doing well. We’ve played excellently so far. It’s important we’re patient and we have important games in September.

“That would be a dream come true to make it at the World Cup.”

* For breaking news, follow us on @Sport_360 or find us on Facebook.

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Bundesliga preview: Pep tasked with building on perfection

4/12/2013
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For Pep Guardiola the task at Bayern Munich is relatively straightforward: improve on perfection.

There have been dominant Bayern sides in the past but Jupp Heynckes’ 2012/13 model took even the more cynical observers by surprise.

Breaking 25 league records in landing the domestic double either side of a triumphant Champions League title at Wembley, the Bavarian giants ruled not only Germany but the entire continent.

After Dortmund’s entertaining two-year grip on the title, Bayern emphatically wrestled it back, and by playing excellent football in the process.

So for the tiki-taka technician his job at the Allianz Arena perhaps represents something a little tougher than when he first accep-ted the role in December 2012.

Bizarrely there is already a degree of pessimism surrounding the Spaniard, and not just because of his choice of plaid shirts combined with bright orange trainers.

Guardiola’s tinkering with a winning formula in pre-season has been met with a degree of derision as he’s deployed Philipp Lahm in defensive midfield and altered the formation from game to game but perhaps the biggest source of scepticism has been the arrival of Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona.

– Ross Dunbar: Pep Guardiola reinventing the wheel at Bayern Munich

The 22-year-old’s elevation to primary midfield pivot has come, at least for now, at the expense of poster boy Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German international struggled with injuries last season but remains the main man in Munich and Felix Magath’s warning that Guardiola’s express faith in Thiago (represented by the coach’s brother) will lead to a dressing room backlash could prove prophetic.

But for now we should at least marvel at what this team is capable of. Mario Gomez has been the only notable departure, although Luiz Gustavo looks soon to follow, and along with Thiago and promising defender Jan Kirchhoff, Guardiola also pushed through the signing of Mario Gotze.

Bringing Gotze into an attacking midfield three that could also feature Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos or Xherdan Shaqiri is an embarrassment of riches.

The 21-year-old’s ability to play in between the lines, picking passes and darting into the box adds another dimension to a potent creative force. While strengthening their own cause, the acquisition of Gotze has, on the face of it, weakened their nearest rivals.

Losing arguably their best player, the pride of their academy and a popular dressing room figure to Bayern hit Dortmund hard.

But manager Jurgen Klopp has, at least for now, managed to keep hold of the remainder of his squad, despite Robert Lewandowski’s protests at being denied a move to Bayern, and in new signings Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang has two players who can more than compensate for the loss of Gotze and bring a more direct and equally dynamic edge.

– Ross Dunbar: Borussia Dortmund's success pinned on an ever-evolving style

Dortmund’s ability to juggle a successful Champions League campaign with domestic duties should also improve meaning the season might not quite be the anticipated one-horse race.

A young Leverkusen team were much improved under Sami Hyppia last term and another year down the line could even threaten Dortmund’s position as Germany’s second-best team.

Son Heung-Min’s arrival from Hamburg was a particularly astute piece of business. Schalke, as usual, possess all the pieces to beat any side on their day and given they were under-par last term but still finished fourth, should deliver a greater challenge.

Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover will be among those looking to break into the top four, or the very least secure a Europa League berth.

Of the new boys Eintracht Braunschweig return to the top flight after 28 years, while the Bundesliga always seems a better place when the capital is represented. Hertha Berlin, who are on their fourth full-time coach in just two years, will hope to find some stability under Jos Luhukay.

SPORT360 PREDICTIONS°

James Piercy (Deputy Editor) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Nuremburg Relegated: Werder Bremen, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Matthias Ginter (Freiburg) Bayern should be too strong but a combination of new methods and Dortmund’s hunger means the gap won’t be as wide this time.

Andy Lewis (News Editor) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Gladbach Relegated: Augsburg, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Leonardo Bittencourt (Hannover) Bayern will win the title, but Dortmund will go close and win the cup. Schalke will improve and Gladbach can qualify for Europe.

Kenny Laurie (Reporter) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Hoffenheim Relegated: Augsburg, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Julian Draxler (Schalke) So hard to look past Bayern, while Julian Draxler is a superb talent who could make a name for himself in a World Cup year.

Jon Turner (Web editor) Champions: Bayern Munich Surprise package: Wolfsburg Relegated: Hoffenheim, Eintracht Braunschweig One to watch: Son Heung-Min (Leverkusen) Expect more of the same from the mighty Bayern Munich while Bayer Leverkusen will run Borussia Dortmund close for second.

* For breaking news, follow us on @Sport_360 or find us on Facebook.

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Bayern Munich chief Hoeness charged with tax evasion

4/12/2013
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Prosecutors charged Bayern Munich's powerful president Uli Hoeness with tax evasion Tuesday, a court said, after a months-long, high-profile probe that has rocked German sport and politics.

The superior regional court in Munich said in a statement that it must now decide whether the case brought by the local prosecutor's office against the chairman of Germany's most successful football club will go to trial.

"Due to the volume of the investigation files as well as the fact that a defence request to delay answering to the charges for one month was granted, a decision by the court on starting a trial is not to be expected before the end of September 2013," court spokeswoman Andrea Titz said in the statement.

She said the court would not provide further details on the proceedings before it takes its decision. Hoeness, 61, a giant of the European sports world, was arrested on March 20, then released on bail for five million euros ($6.6 million), as part of an investigation into unpaid taxes on a Swiss account in his name.

He admitted in a magazine interview published in April that he had stashed millions of euros away from the German taxman thanks to Switzerland's bank secrecy laws.

Hoeness said he had at first turned himself in to authorities in January over an unspecified amount of unpaid taxes. He had originally hoped to come forward under an expected German-Swiss tax accord which would have allowed him to settle the matter anonymously with a one-off payment, he told the Focus news weekly.

But Germany's political opposition — which will seek to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel in a September 22 election — torpedoed the measure on the grounds that it unfairly offered criminal amnesty to tax dodgers.

The amount of money Hoeness, who also draws income from a successful sausage company, has stashed in the Swiss account, and the taxes owed, were unclear as he and prosecutors have stayed quiet on the details, but were reported to be in the millions of euros.

However subsequent accounts have said that a significant portion of the assets may be subject to the statute of limitations, thus bringing the amount in question below one million euros.

Hoeness has already paid at least 3.2 million euros in back taxes to German authorities, according to news reports that have not cited sources. He apologised for the scandal in May and offered to temporarily stand down as Bayern president.

But the team's board decided he should stay in office, saying it would continue to "monitor" the investigation into the former midfielder who won the 1974 World Cup with West Germany. The club declined to comment on the charges Tuesday.

"We're not talking about that," spokesman Markus Hoerwick said. The revelations have sparked huge controversy in an election year as Merkel's opponents charge she has been weak on the issue of tax evasion by wealthy Germans. Merkel herself has admitted she was "disappointed" in Hoeness' alleged conduct.

Meanwhile Bayern have had a remarkably successful streak, becoming the first German team last season to win the hat trick of European, league and cup titles. Hoeness is a larger-than-life figure in the German public consciousness, having survived a serious car accident and walked away from a plane crash in the course of his career.

With 35 appearances for West Germany, Hoeness, alongside Franz Beckenbauer and goal-scoring ace Gerd Mueller, was at the heart of the Bayern team which won the European Cup in three consecutive seasons between 1974-76.

Spending nearly nine years as a Bayern player, Hoeness won eight titles with the Bavarian giants, until a persistent knee injury forced him to retire when still just 27.

When his career finished in 1979, he brought the same drive he had shown on the pitch to his new role as general manager and when Beckenbauer stood down as Bayern president in 2009, Hoeness was ready to succeed him.

He was instrumental in pulling off arguably the biggest signing in the club's history in January when it was announced they had lured Spanish coach Pep Guardiola to Munich from under the noses of several English Premier League clubs.

But Hoeness has admitted the tax evasion scandal has since taken a heavy toll on him, telling a newspaper in May he had suffered sleepless nights and been going through "hell" since his arrest.

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