From Bosnian war to Philadelphia peace, the lifelong journey through soccer of the Union's Haris Medunjanin

Haris Medunjanin doesn’t keep any souvenirs of his winding career through international soccer at his place  near City Avenue. In fact, the only proof you’d find there that he’s a soccer player is a game ball signed by his teammates from the night he scored his first Union goal.

The physical souvenirs are all at his mother’s home in the Netherlands. But the memories are all still crystal-clear. And he can still put them together with all the elegance and intelligence of the inch-perfect passes he offers his teammates at Talen Energy Stadium.

It is a story unlike any other the Union locker room has seen. Indeed, it is rare even by the standards of international soccer globetrotting.

From his native Bosnia to now, he has lived in seven countries and played the game in dozens more.

He has survived a war that wrecked his homeland, and represented that homeland on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

He has had a personal audience with Lionel Messi, and taught youngsters at the Union’s academy in Wayne.

Medunjanin could easily have become a grizzled cynic along the way. But he is just the opposite: charismatic, humble, and more than happy to open up about his journey.

Start at the beginning, and not just for chronological reasons. There’s no way Medunjanin would be here, or anywhere else, if not for a series of strokes of fortune that saved him from the early-’90s war in his native Bosnia.

Camera icon RIKARD LARMA / AP
A gravedigger passing through a snowy civil war cemetery, next to the Kosevo Stadium, in March 1997. A soccer field, also part of the complex, was turned during the siege of Sarajevo into a graveyard because of lack of other places where victims of the war could have been buried.

Born in Sarajevo, Medunjanin was 7 when the fighting broke out in April 1992.

“You are a kid, and in that moment, you don’t realize what kind of impact it’s going to have on your life, something like this,” he recalled. “But my mother, it was very tough for her, because it was me and my sister — she was 5 years old and I was 7. And the family was saying, ‘Take them out of here. Try to leave from here. Try to give them a better place.’ ”

A few weeks after the war began, the three of them got on one of the last buses out of the city that guaranteed passage to safety. Among the relatives left behind were Haris’ father, a grandmother, and two uncles.

“If you didn’t take that bus, you would be stuck in the war for four years,” he said. “We had luck in that moment, that my mother took us out from there. … I could have been there with a lot of people staying in the war, and you don’t know whether you’re going to survive or not.”

The bus was headed to Montenegro. At a border checkpoint, a Serbian man came aboard with a big gun in tow, shouting that he was going to kill all the passengers. He seized Haris and took him outside.

“My mother, she almost died,” he said. “I didn’t even think.”

A few moments later, it dawned on him that something bad might happen. But what actually happened was the exact opposite.

“This guy told me, ‘Never pick up a gun. Never do something stupid. Try to think positively. Try to do some sports,’ ” Medunjanin said.

The gunman returned Medunjanin to the bus, and declared that he would let it go on its way because he didn’t want to harm the children aboard.

Having been spared by that grace, the passengers went on to their freedom.

The family members embarked on a journey across Europe that took them to Scandinavia. Swedish authorities rejected the immigrant convoy they traveled with, but Denmark accepted them. They lived in tents, and it was cold, but it was a start.

Camera icon JOY LEE / Staff Photographer
Haris Medunjanin tells the story of his childhood and soccer career at his apartment complex.

Medunjanin recalled that at the time, he didn’t grasp the gravity of the moment. But he certainly does now.

“You are a child, 7 years old, you don’t even think — you just are searching for other people, small children, to play with,” he said. “But for my mother, it was devastating to see all those kinds of things, to have us there, and trying to talk with our family at every possibility. … You had a phone there, and you could call, and maybe you heard something, or maybe not. She was staying there 24 hours just to pick up a voice.”

Haris never got to experience the majestic Sarajevo of prewar lore, the one that served as a sparkling backdrop to the 1984 Winter Olympics. But he heard plenty of stories from his mother about how things used to be.

“It was a very beautiful country, Yugoslavia when everyone was together,” he said. “My mother was always telling me they would never leave, because they had everything. … But I was too young at that moment to see all that stuff.”

Over the next five years, they moved from one settlement to another until they finally gained the papers to settle officially in the Netherlands. At that time, Medunjanin’s father moved to join the family. But he didn’t stay for long, because of health problems. He returned to Bosnia and died there.

All along the way, Haris played soccer. Not on a fancy grass field like you see in American suburbs, but on the street. If there was a ball and a few friends to kick it around with, he was there, no matter the setting.

“In Bosnia, a lot of football players are very technical, because we play every day on the streets — from the morning until the night,” he said. “You learn to play quick in small areas, so you already know when you get the ball where you need to pass. You learn everything on the street.”

His first taste of organized soccer came in Denmark. Then, when he went to the Netherlands, it became a regular thing. One day, while living in a refugee settlement camp in the southern town of Roermond, Haris and one of his uncles went to a nearby field where a local amateur team was training. The team  asked if Haris could join in for a bit, and he was welcomed.

It didn’t take long for the team’s coach, Wim Peters, to see a potential player in the small, skinny kid who was wearing tennis shoes, not soccer cleats. Medunjanin was invited to stay with the team, and formed a bond with Peters that remains to this day.

Camera icon DAVID RAMOS / AP
Haris Medunjanin from Bosnia, second from left, celebrates with his teammates after scoring during his Spanish La Liga soccer match against Espanyol in November 2009.

The first professional team to take an interest in Medunjanin was Fortuna Sittard, a Dutch club that at the time was in the country’s top league. But not long after Medunjanin was invited to train with the club’s youth team, the family got an opportunity to move from the refugee camp to a house owned by an uncle in Alkmaar, at the northern end of the country.

That, of course, was more important. Fortuna’s staff understood, and sent a letter of recommendation to a club in what was to be the family’s new home town.

It so happened that the club in question was AZ Alkmaar. In future years, it would play a significant role in American soccer history — and in Medunjanin’s path to Philadelphia. But this was the early 2000s. Future Union sporting director Earnie Stewart was still in his playing days.

When Medunjanin first showed up at AZ, he was judged by the club’s scouts to not be good enough for a contract. So he joined a local amateur team that often trained with AZ’s youth players. (That club, AFC ’34, still lists Medunjanin among its famous alumni on the Hall of Fame page of its website.)

After a while, he got another shot with AZ, and in 2004, it gave him his first professional contract. A year later, the club hired one of the game’s most famous coaches, Louis van Gaal. He had already managed Barcelona and the Dutch national team, and had come back home after a falling out with the Spanish club’s front office.

Van Gaal is renowned just as much for his vast ego as for his vast coaching acumen. Medunjanin felt the full force of both.

“He knows everything,” Medunjanin said, and it wasn’t quite a compliment. “It’s very difficult if you want to try to give your own idea. … But I was happy that I trained under him. I learned so much.”

Though he didn’t get on the field often for AZ, Medunjanin did enough to draw the attention of the Dutch youth national team setup. He was on the Netherlands’ under-21 squad that won back-to-back European championships in 2006 and 2007. Teammates included future stars such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Real Madrid, AC Milan) and Ryan Babel (Liverpool).

Camera icon BAS CZERWINSKI / AP
The Dutch under-21 soccer team poses before a first-round match against Israel in June, 2007. Haris Medunjanin is at the far left of the front row.

It was the soccer equivalent of an Ivy League education, and Medunjanin relished every second of it.

“They are the total football, from Johan Cruyff,” Medunjanin said, referring to the soccer philosophy of the Dutch legend. “No long balls, everything is in the feet, knowing where you need to play the ball before you get it. The technical things, it’s amazing what you learn there.”

In 2008, Medunjanin moved from AZ to Spanish top-flight club Real Valladolid. It was the kind of achievement any soccer player dreams of: the chance to mix it up with the world’s elite players on one of the game’s most glamorous stages

“Spain is the best football you can play,” he said. “You play against Real Madrid, you play against Barcelona, you play against [Lionel] Messi, you play against [Cristiano] Ronaldo, nice stadiums, always full … It was a dream come true for me.”

The glamour extended to life off the field, too. It took a little while for Medunjanin to adjust to that, especially the national pastime of eating dinner late at night.

“The Spanish people, they know how to live, man,” he said. “I was used to eating at 6 p.m., but in Spain, nothing was open at 6 p.m. So I was eating in some shopping malls alone. I was like, ‘What is this? Nobody’s here,’ and they were looking at me like ‘What is this guy [doing] eating already?’ ”

A year later, Medunjanin’s got the ultimate dream call: an invitation to play for Bosnia’s national team.

For as much as he appreciated wearing the famed Dutch orange, Medunjanin’s heart was still in his homeland. He accepted without a moment’s hesitation.

Camera icon Mindaugas Kulbis / AP
Bosnia’s Asmir Begovic (left) and Haris Medunjanin celebrated their victory after the World Cup Group G qualifying soccer match between Lithuania and Bosnia in October 2013.

Before he could take the field, though, he had to file change-of-nationality paperwork with FIFA. The global governing body took its time, of course, and didn’t clear him until two games after the team hoped to have him.

So he had to settle for making his debut in a two-game World Cup qualifying playoff series against Portugal.

They were only the biggest games in the nation’s history to date.

The series turned out to be a narrow loss. But Medunjanin got to play in the home game, and that got his foot in the door.

Meanwhile, he had a big decision to make at the club level. Valladolid had just been relegated to Spain’s second division, and he didn’t want to stick around for that. An offer came from Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, which was set to compete in the UEFA Cup — the second tier of continental competition below the Champions League.

As if the general state of violence in the Middle East weren’t enough, making that move was complicated by the fact that Medunjanin is Muslim. But he went for it, and that turned out to be a great decision.

“When I went there, you didn’t see nothing about what people [abroad] are saying,” Medunjanin said. “It’s an amazing country — it’s like it’s open 24 hours, you can do whatever you want. You have the beach, you have a good life. If you earn some good money, you can have have it very good.”

Not everything was perfect on the field, as Medunjanin clashed at times with coaches. He had the confidence of a player who faced the world’s biggest stars for club and country.

Camera icon ENNIO LEANZA / Keystone
Haris Medunjanin of Bosnia (left) battling  Ronaldinho of Brazil for the ball during a friendly in February 2012.

In the spring of 2012, Medunjanin found himself benched after returning from a national team game against Ronaldinho’s Brazil. That led to an argument with the coach. As often happens, the coach won — and suspended Medunjanin for a month.

“When you are young, you think you know everything,” he said. “I understand that you need to listen, but when they get you for four years, you come there as a star player. So they could also ask me something. … I’m humbled always, but you can’t treat me like I am a young guy from there.”

During the suspension, Medunjanin went home to Alkmaar. He asked the team’s sporting director at the time if he could train with AZ during that span, and was welcomed in.

That sporting director was Earnie Stewart.

While cooling his jets, Medunjanin decided it was time to leave Maccabi. In August  2012, he moved to Turkish first division club Gaziantepspor.

Turkish soccer stadiums are renowned for their hothouse atmospheres. Gaziantepspor’s came with the added bonus of being 40 miles from the Syrian border.

“It’s crazy … again I’m in war country,” Medunjanin said. But he wanted to be on the field instead of on the bench, and this gave him a chance to play regularly at a good level. It also helped that he had some friends on the team.

“I said, listen, I need to play again, I need to be in the picture for the national team, because the [2014] World Cup was coming,” he said. “I played almost every game. It was a good thing for me that I went there.”

Those performances got him back up the national team depth chart at a perfect time. Medunjanin started the last five games of the qualifying cycle as Bosnia won its group and reached the pinnacle of international soccer for the first time ever.

The clinching result was a 1-0 victory at Lithuania on the final day of qualifying. Medunjanin was in in the middle of the action when Vedad Ibisevic poked home the winner.

By luck of the draw, Bosnia made its World Cup debut against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. If that wasn’t incredible enough, the game was played at South American’s greatest soccer shrine, the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

The game ended up a 2-1 loss. Bosnia gave up an own goal in the third minute — the earliest own goal in a game in World Cup history — and Messi sealed the win with a 65th-minute wonder-strike.

But just being there made it a night for the history books, and Medunjanin came away with the biggest souvenir of all.

“I knew [Messi] from Spain, and I asked him for his shirt after the game,” Medunjanin said, invoking great tradition of soccer sportsmanship. “He said, ‘Of course, I’ll give it to you afterward in the tunnel.’ I thought for sure he had forgot. So I was coming back, I walked in the tunnel and I see Messi waiting there. I said, ‘Hey, listen, I respect you now even more.’ … I was walking to the tunnel and I saw him there waiting, and I was thinking: What the? Why is he waiting on me? Who am I, man? This is Messi.”

Medunjanin presumed it would be a one-sided transaction. But as he was about to leave, Messi asked for his shirt.

“I said, ‘You want my shirt? Come on,’ ” Medunjanin recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, I want your shirt.’ So I gave him my shirt.”

Some years later, Medunjanin learned that Messi has a giant collection of jerseys acquired from games played over the years.

“Maybe I’m there somewhere,” Medunjanin said.

He definitely knows where the Messi jersey is: with his sister in Amsterdam.

“She posted it on Instagram and Facebook, and all these guys were jealous,” Medunjanin said. “She was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this shirt. Who wants to buy it?’ ”

Fortunately, that was sarcasm.

Bosnia went out of the World Cup in the group stage. Medunjanin played 16 minutes against Argentina and 64 minutes in the next game, a 1-0 loss to Nigeria. Though he sat out of the finale, a 3-1 win over Iran, he did enough in his time on the field to catch the eye of Spanish club Deportivo La Coruña.

The team had just come up from a short stint in the second division, but it had a proud history of playing in European competitions — including reaching the Champions League semifinals in 2004.

“To play again in Spain was my dream,” Medunjanin said. “When I came, there was a player from the [2004] team who was still playing. It was amazing.”

By January  2016, Medunjanin was down the depth chart at Deportivo. Maccabi called again. He was reluctant to make the move, given his problems with the club’s brass the last time around. But he got assurances that things were different from the club’s technical director, Jordi Cruyff — Johann’s son.

Medunjanin got his contract in Spain canceled, and made the move. Cruyff’s assurances proved true, and Medunjanin helped Maccabi finish in second place in the Israeli Premier League. That qualified the team for the Europa League, the new name for the old UEFA Cup — and coincidentally, they were drawn with AZ Alkmaar.

In the interim, Medunjanin had traveled to the United States a few times to play friendly games for Bosnia. He liked what he saw so much that he decided to see if he could move to Major League Soccer. So he told his agent to start looking for opportunities.

“I really like it over here, the organization, how people live here for sports,” he said. “All the facilities, and that people like what they do. In Europe, you don’t see that often, because everything is so business-like.”

A call came in from an old friend: Stewart, who by that time was in the Union’s front office.

“He told me, ‘I really wanted to bring you here,’ ” Medunjanin said. “I told him I was positive for this kind of opportunity. … From there, it was very quick.”

In January, Maccabi gave Medunjanin permission to move from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia. He had done the club a favor by coming back, and it understood he wanted to chase a new dream.

“We understood that receiving such an offer at this stage of his career is a great opportunity, and therefore didn’t want to stand in his way,” Cruyff said in a statement at the time.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Haris Medunjanin  gets a hug from Union teammate Ray Gaddis after scoring.

Now 32 years old, Medunjanin is no longer the brash youngster who clashed with coaches over tactics and lineups. He’s an elder statesman in Philadelphia, especially with the Union’s emphasis on developing young players from their academy. It’s a role he’s glad to embrace.

“I just came here to play soccer, to help the young guys, maybe bring them some knowledge, to teach them some things that they can do for themselves later,” he said. “The young kids are so mature. When I was that young, I was not that mature. They speak on a high level about things that, when I was 11 or 12 years old, I couldn’t even talk about.”

Medunjanin has also been inspired by that most old-fashioned of American traits: work ethic.

“In Europe, if some guys are playing a little bit and then they get confident, they don’t want to train. But here, it’s not like that,” he said. “C.J. Sapong, he gets killed in every game, he never gets a foul — he shuts up, he stands up and he runs again. This kind of mentality, in Europe you don’t see it a lot. They will shout and [complain] and talk with the referee.”

Earlier this summer, Medunjanin returned to the Bosnian national team for the first time since joining the Union. It was as big a thrill as ever, especially because he got to see his relatives.

“To play for the national team is always an amazing feeling,” he said. “You go to the bus downstairs, and all the people are on the streets waiting for you. … You want to do it for these people, because there are so many problems in that country. There’s no money, renovation of buildings is not there. … The only positive thing in Bosnia is the soccer. They live for that.”

Medunjanin’s heart still belongs to his homeland. But he considers himself part-Dutch too. His soccer skills have a Spanish accent, and his girlfriend has an Israeli one.

Now there’s also some Philadelphia in him. And it’s clear from watching him on and off the field that he’s happy to have it.