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Saturday 10 December 2016

Begovic talks up value of Whelan to Ireland

Bosnia National soccer team goalkeeper Asmir Begovic
Bosnia National soccer team goalkeeper Asmir Begovic

A man called Asmir has a lot on his mind.

He's now more in the focus due to his day-to-day trauma at Chelsea FC, Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic coming under the microscope of an obsessed world more than he could ever have imagined in his previous life at clubs like Stoke and Portsmouth.

When Portsmouth lose a game, it doesn't break the internet but each loss with Chelsea drags Begovic, Mourinho and everyone else in that camp into an unwanted maelstrom.

But the 28-year-old looks calm and stress-free as he ambles in for training with his Bosnia team-mates.

He bats away queries about some strapping on his fingers, poses for selfies with some of the local media, and finds time for a chat with an interloper from the Irish press.

Keen to know how Ireland are shaping up, he smiles when told Marc Wilson, his former team-mate at both Portsmouth and Stoke, has (accidentally) hurt one of his fellow Ireland players (David Meyler) in training earlier that day.

Smart

"I'm surprised to hear that Marc injured someone in training. Marc is a smart player and a clever guy and these things just happen in training, I am sure there was no malice or intent but I guess that shows how serious Ireland are," he told The Herald.

He's also eager to talk about Glenn Whelan, Begovic bemused by the fact that the midfielder is not as respected in his native land as he should be.

"Glenn is a proper pro and a good player. He's very valuable to every team he's with, sometimes to the uneducated, naked eye he doesn't get the credit he deserves, but he's a great guy to have around," Begovic says.

"I know how important he was to Stoke when I was there and I know he's also very important to Ireland, he's a great player to have around the club and he deserves more credit that he gets."

Our conversation takes place at the Bosnian FA's training camp, high on a hill, a 10-minute walk from the centre of Zenica, which is now the adopted home of the national side. In the background, the call to prayer comes from two nearby mosques. It's a long way from the King's Road in London, which is now Begovic's home.

But the keeper, who hopes to celebrate his 29th birthday in France at the European Championship finals next year, is never really sure where home is - by the time he was 18 he had lived in five countries.

Fleeing war-torn Bosnia as a boy (Begovic was five when war broke out), the family went to Canada, via Germany. He still speaks with a small tint of a Canadian accent but that has blended in with an English way of talking after all his years in England (though he also had a spell in Belgium).

Locals note that he speaks the Bosnian language with an odd accent too, and it's said that when he first came back to Bosnia from Canada, he was unable to communicate with his grandparents, who only spoke Bosnian.

Hero

But he is a big local hero, Bosnians proud to have their man in goal for Chelsea, no matter how trying their season is. And Begovic says he's not stressed by recent events at Stamford Bridge which have left Jose Mourinho on the brink.

"My club form will have no bearing on the national team. You can't blame one person for the bad results that a team goes through, it's a team effort and a team game," he says.

"A club team in England is different from the team here with the national side. We are all optimistic for the national side."

At the start of this campaign, there was little optimism for Bosnia who looked certain to struggle on the road to France but here they are, 180 minutes away, and Begovic feels that fans - who were highly critical last year - are back on side.

"A few months ago, when we weren't winning games, the atmosphere was not so great but bad results lead to a bad atmosphere, that's just logical.

"When you have good results, everyone is in a good mood, that's football."

His home-town is Trebinje, now in the Serbian part of the two-state Bosnian federation, but Zenica is home for the national side.

"We always have great backing there at home," he says.

"The fans here in Zenica always look forward to the game, it's always a packed house, it's very intimidating atmosphere for other teams and I think all of that - the pitch, the crowd, the atmosphere - will play in our favour. It is very intimidating for the away team. It will be a very strong, pro-Bosnian crowd, we love playing in font of them, we have a great record in Zenica and we hope that carry that on tomorrow."

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