From War-Torn Bosnia to Berlin to St. Louis, Elvir Kafedžić has always found comfort in the game of soccer
Written by Zach Lowy | Co-founder & Lead Writer at BreakingTheLines.com
The Gateway Arch, Anheuser-Busch, mouth-watering barbecue….there are plenty of things that out-of-towners tend to associate with St. Louis, but a bustling Bosnian community isn’t always one of them. As of 2013, there were 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis, and although that figure has declined in recent years, the city continues to boast the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe. The first wave of immigrants came in the early 1990s as Bosnian refugees fled a gruesome war that would last from April 1992 to December 1995 and leave over 101,000 people dead. Elvir Kafedžić, who was nine years old when the war began, remembers it like it was yesterday.
“Our city got attacked and as soon as that happened, we got a few things and decided to run away. It’s a chaotic scene where everybody’s just trying to save their lives and their family members, it’s like a horror movie. Everybody’s just running around, just to save as much as they can and leave everything else behind and try to find a new path in life. It was something I don’t wish upon anyone.”
Kafedžić’s family embarked on a journey across Europe without their father, who was killed in the fighting, passing through Montenegro, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Czech Republic (again) over the course of eight months before finally settling in Berlin, Germany, in 1992, just three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the first year in Germany was a difficult transitional period for him due to the language barrier and cultural differences, Kafedžić, and his two older brothers found solace in their childhood passion: soccer.
“In Bosnia, every kid, all they do is play soccer on the streets but what was better about Germany was the infrastructure. It’s a much more developed country and there’s good quality soccer fields everywhere you go. That was what I liked, all I did was go to school, leave my backpack at home when I got back from school and spend the next 5-6 hours on the soccer pitch.”
In March 1999, Kafedžić and his family left Berlin and came to St. Louis, settling in Affton, one of the city’s largest Bosnian enclaves alongside Bevo Mill, Mehlville and Oakville. “The first year was really hard to adjust to life here. All I was used to was school and soccer in Germany, I came here and the only soccer facility was Soccer Park in Fenton. You could hardly see any real soccer fields anywhere else, there would be parks but nothing official. That’s why I had a really hard time, it took me a while to adjust to life here.”
He spent a year at Affton High School before enrolling in Lindenwood University, playing college soccer for the Lions and leading them to their first and only NAIA National Championship in 2004. It was here that he befriended Vedad Ibišević, a Bosnian teenager who moved to St. Louis in 2001 and quickly became one of the nation’s hottest soccer recruits, impressing at the collegiate and professional level and earning the attention of Paris Saint-Germain’s Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodžić, who brought him to the club in 2004. Ibišević struggled for minutes in Paris and bounced around from Dijon to Alemania Aachen before eventually joining 1899 Hoffenheim, where he would play a leading role in the club’s promotion to the top-flight and register 19 goals and 7 assists in their first-ever Bundesliga season. In total, he would score a whopping 127 goals in 344 appearances before retiring from football in 2020, and his 28 goals for the Bosnian national team are second only to Edin Džeko in the Zmajevi’s scoring leaderboards.
Kafedžić began his professional career with St. Louis Strikers in the United Soccer Premier Development League, the fourth tier of the American Soccer Pyramid, but the bulk of his playing days was spent with indoor soccer clubs such as St. Louis Steamers, Chicago Storm, St. Louis Illusion, California Cougars and Illinois Piasa; in 2007, Kafedžić traveled with the US National Futsal team to play in tournaments in Brazil and Spain. After a brief spell with Rockford Rampage, he joined the St. Louis Ambush, where he would rack up 22 goals in 29 appearances before hanging up his boots at 33 years of age.
“I wanted to stay with soccer because that’s all I have done my whole life so I started focusing on coaching and mainly the large Bosnian community here, that’s why I started my own club in 2013 – the St. Louis Dragons. Ever since I retired, I’ve been coaching young soccer players and developing them and giving them the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
Kafedžić was unveiled as one of St. Louis CITY SC’s three new Sporting Community Relations Consultants in November 2020 in a role that puts his impressive track record with developing young soccer players to the test. He has spent the past eight weeks coaching the club’s U-17 team, who came out victorious on August 28 in the first competitive match in club history, defeating hosts Chicago Fire 4-3 thanks to an 89th minute goal from birthday boy Kai Pope.
“We want to have homegrown players from St Louis playing on our academy teams and then making the jump to the development team and then to the pro team because we have a holistic approach. We want to always be out in the community, we want our community to feed our academy teams and our academy teams to feed the development of the first team. With St. Louis CITY, we are going to put a lot of pitches around the St. Louis area so kids can do the stuff that I was doing back in Germany; you get a couple of free hours and you go out after school to play soccer with your friends.”
When St. Louis CITY SC kick off their maiden MLS campaign in 2023, it is estimated that a third of their fan base will be Bosnian-Americans, including BH Loyals, a local supporters group that was founded in 2014 to organize fans of the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team. They will be cheering on their adopted hometown and relishing in their shared bond with Kafedžić, who, despite being forced to abandon his motherland and seek a better life halfway across the world, has persevered and thrived thanks to an undying passion for the beautiful game.