ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Lionel Messi’s last-minute scratch from Argentina’s exhibition soccer game against Bosnia on Monday night isn’t dampening excitement in St. Louis, home to one of the largest Bosnian communities outside Sarajevo.
The four-time world player of the year injured his leg a week ago while playing for FC Barcelona and isn’t expected to return until 2014. Argentina had been considered one the early World Cup favorites, though Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella discounted such talk at a Sunday press conference. He singled out Germany and host Brazil as teams to beat.
“The media says that we are the favorites,” he said. “We don’t.”
Messi would likely still have been a secondary attraction for the 70,000 Bosnians who have settled in St. Louis over the past two decades after war in the former Yugoslavia. The Bosnia-Herzegovina national team will join traditional power Argentina in the 2014 World Cup for its first appearance as an independent nation.
After narrowly missing out berths in the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championships, that’s an enormous point of pride in a country still beset by poverty, more than 25 percent unemployment and ethnic division among Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
Bosnia’s appearance before what should be a highly partisan “home” crowd wasn’t assured until Vedad Ibisevic scored in the 68th minute of a 1-0 win over Lithuania in mid-October.
Ibisevic’s family was among the many displaced by a conflict that killed over 100,000 people. He moved to St. Louis as a teen and starred for a city high school and one season at Saint Louis University before turning pro. He plays in the Bundesliga, Germany’s top division. Bosnia is also led by Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and German-born playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic,
The national team’s arrival was just about all 16-year-old Adnan Abdic could talk about as he helped his father and uncle at a merchandise stand they set up Saturday outside a Bosnian-owned market in Bevo Mill, the south St. Louis neighborhood once home to German immigrants a century ago. The high school junior watched national team’s 2-1 exhibition loss to Mexico at Soldier Field in Chicago in May 2012 and has tickets for Monday’s game.
“It’s been crazy,” he said, describing not only the walk-up sales of blue and yellow jerseys and pennants but the team’s visits to the Bosnian bakeries, restaurants, taverns and nightclubs that have revitalized the once-declining neighborhood. “The players are stars here.”
The international exhibition at Busch Stadium is the second this year. An overflow crowd of 48,263 attended Manchester City’s 4-3 exhibition win over rival Chelsea in May. And an August friendly between Real Madrid and Inter Milan drew more than 54,000 to the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams.