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What are the first few words that pop up in your mind when you hear the word ‘Bundesliga’? They may be ‘Bayern’, ‘Dortmund’, ‘Revierderby’, or even, ’50+1′ – a rule about club ownership. What about its cult heroes who are not from the country that made Zweikampf a footballing sensation? Some of the obvious examples of this include Elber, Sand, Cha-Bum Kun and Bratseth. One name, in particular, stands out from the others due to the fact that he spent 17 years in Germany as a footballer, even though he was born and raised somewhere in the Balkans. Lads and lasses, his name is Sergej Barbarez!
A biography usually starts with the hero’s early life, does it not? Sergej Barbarez was born on 17 September 1971 in Mostar, Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia (now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) to a Bosnian Serb father and a half-Croat and half-Bosniak mother. In his early childhood, ‘Barba’ was more interested in basketball and athletics, which should not come as a surprise thanks to Yugoslavia’s sporting exploits. Then, he fell in love with ‘the Beautiful Game’ at the tender age of 11. In 1984, he joined the youth setup of FK Velež, one of the most successful clubs in the region. Soon after signing a professional contract with the club, he went to Zagreb to serve for the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1991. Once he returned to Bijeli Brijeg, Velež’s ground at the time, he showcased his skills all around the country that was already in chaos. However, a visit to his uncle in Germany would later prove to be a turning point for Sergej the prospect.
This is where it all actually began for Barbarez as he would soon jump at the chance of stabilising his life in a new environment. Just as Sergej was preparing to go home after a fortnight away from Mostar and his family, his uncle managed to extend his stay in Germany for another fortnight so that he could join a two-week trial period with Hannover 96. Left astonished by Barba’s talent, H96 poached the lad from Mostar. Speaking of Mostar, conflicts in Yugoslavia kept growing, and all that trouble made the life in Bosnia, practically, a living hell. Just before the Bosnian War, Sergej convinced his father, sister, and his high school sweetheart to come and live with him in Germany. Zlata, Barba’s mother, however, stayed in Mostar. As for his club career in Germany, it did not meet the initial expectations – scoring 2 in 19 appearances for the Lower Saxony side.
He consequently joined 1. FC Union from Köpenick, one of the quarters in Berlin, who were in the NOFV-Oberliga Mitte at the time – the then-third-tier of the German football pyramid. There, Barbarez became a star in the team as ‘der Eisernen (the Iron Ones)‘ won the league two more times after his arrival at Stadion An der Alten Försterei. Nevertheless, the club failed to gain promotion to 2. Bundesliga until 2001 due to various reasons. With the return of Regionalliga, Union were included in the league’s north-eastern branch.
Barba would eventually join the sixth-placed team in Bundesliga’s 33rd edition and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern outfit, Hansa Rostock in 1996 for a fee close to 640k Deutsche Marks, as he departed the Old Forester’s House with a remarkable record of 46 goals in 89 matches for the Köpenick side. His top-flight debut coincided with the 19th birthday of both William Gallas and Thierry Henry when Hansa took on Karlsruhe as both sided scored two goals apiece. It was not until 15 February 1997 that Barbarez scored his first Bundesliga goal against the very same team in a reverse fixture at Wildparkstadion in Karlsruhe. Of course, 3 goals in 29 matches all season is never an ideal way of leaving your first mark in top-flight football, but next season was a different story. Scoring 11 goals in 32 league matches for the Ostseestadion side – two of which was against the eventual champions and dark horses of the season, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, both home and away, Hansa Rostock achieved a second 6th place in 3 years.
This breakthrough not only led to a belated international debut for Bosnia and Herzegovina, we will talk about it in detail later, but also a move to Borussia Dortmund for 2.87 million DM in 1998. At that time, this fee was the norm for a striker in the mould of Barbarez, who was yet to play for a major force in German football. His career arguably hit a new low while playing for BVB; even though he scored a brace v Hertha BSC in his second league match for Dortmund, he was sent off in the 53rd minute of the next game against 1. FC Nürnberg. After scoring a goal against his previous club, Hansa Rostock, he had to endure a goal drought for almost six months for Borussia Dortmund. That goalless spell came to an end in April when he scored a half-time equaliser v SC Freiburg in a 2-1 win for ‘die Schwarzgelben (The Black and Yellows)‘.
The next season was not going to be a different story. In the first match of the 1999-2000 Bundesliga season, Barba was sent off in the 76th minute of the game against 1. FC K’lautern, which put his place in the team in jeopardy. That season, he was more utilised in European matches, scoring a goal against Norwegian champions, Rosenborg BK as well as slotting a very crucial ball home against Rangers in the shoot-outs in the 3rd round of UEFA Cup later that season. Following another league loss v 1.FCK, though, Michael Skibbe was demoted from his position as BVB’s manager to the coordinator of Borussia Dortmund’s youth team on 6 February 2000. However, things could not have turned sourer for him when he was given a 30-day suspension two days after a 2-0 loss against the eventual UEFA Cup winners of 2000, Galatasaray, missing 6 matches in total – 5 in Bundesliga, and the reverse fixture v GS. His last game as a Dortmund saw Barba score two goals in a 3-0 win at Olympiastadion (the one in Berlin, not Munich!)
Hamburger SV came calling at the end of the season as they bought the Bosnian deep-lying forward for €1.8 million from the North Rhine-Westphalian giants. His first goal for ‘die Rothosen (the Red Shorts)‘ came in a CL qualifier against Brøndby IF of Denmark where Hamburg scored 2 goals within a space of two minutes. He, then, scored his first Bundesliga goal for HSV came in the third fixture of the season, where ‘der Dino (the Dinosaurs)‘ beat their fierce rivals SV Werder Bremen at home 2-1, with Barba scoring the opener. A total of 4 goals against VfL Bochum 1848 and his former team, Borussia Dortmund, (4-0, 2-3) meant that he scored a goal per game in the first five weeks of the season. Three days later, he scored a goal against the Spanish champions RC Deportivo La Coruña, where Hamburg lost the game 2-1 by a last-gasp winner from Lionel Scaloni. As weeks passed by, Barbarez scored goals against the likes of Bayern, Dortmund, and Köln.
Despite being sent off against K’lautern on 5 May 2001, he played the full 90 minutes against Energie Cottbus, where Hamburg shockingly succumbed to a 4-2 defeat in spite of Barba’s brace. He concluded the season with a goal against der FCB in a match where a draw with the Dinosaurs would be enough for die Rekordmeister to seal the title at the expense of Schalke 04, who were playing against a hopeless SpVgg Unterhachning. Although ‘die Knappen (The Miners)‘ defeated SpVgg 5-3, Patrik Andersson’s last-minute robbery at Volksparkstadion echoed Arsenal’s First Division title win against Liverpool 12 years prior as Bayern won the league, and then, the Champions League against Valencia CF at San Siro. As for Sergej Barbarez, despite sharing the first place in goalscoring charts with Schalke’s ‘Danish Dynamite’, Ebbe Sand, with 22 goals; Hamburger SV ended the season in 13th place. Nothing worth noting happened in the next season for him other than his stellar performances against Hertha, Köln, and St Pauli – with whom die Rothosen contest ‘das (Hamburger) Stadtderby (The [Hamburg] City Derby)‘. His third season with the Volksparkstadion outfit was nothing special. Other than a goal in ‘das Nordderby (The North Derby)‘ against SV Werder, a fourth-place finish with his team, and missing much of the first half, nothing extraordinary occurred in the 2002-03 season for Barba.
Barbarez and his teammates made a brilliant start to the next season by winning the short-lived Ligapokal – a tournament featuring the top five teams (or six) of the previous Bundesliga season, and the defending DFB-Pokal winners; with the 2. Bundesliga being added in the last edition in 2007. There, der Dino overcame Hertha, Bayern (on penalties), and BVB to lift the trophy as Sergej Barbarez scored a goal against the Bavarian giants, as well as an assist v Borussia Dortmund. However, the fairytale did not last long as HSV could only get 8 out of a possible 27 points in the first 9 matches, as well suffering a shock first-round exit against FC Dnipro, leading to the dismissal of Kurt Jara on 22 October 2003.
Klaus Toppmöller led the charge as Hamburg’s manager for the rest of the season and steered the club to 8th place on Matchday 25, ending the season in the same position. The next season for Barba did not start so well, but he finally erupted on 27 October 2004 against SC Freiburg as he scored a hat-trick as well as registering an assist for Emile Mpenza, who had played for Schalke 04 and would join Manchester City in 2007, before being replaced by Bernardo Romeo in the 70th minute of the game with a round of applause. He also had a brace of assists against Hansa in HSV’s 6-0 win at Ostseestadion, a place very familiar to Sergej Barbarez indeed. The Bosnian star also put in good performances against Borussia Mönchengladbach and Arminia Bielefeld, but his red card in the reverse fixture v Freiburg had a bad effect on his teammates as the Red Shorts had to settle for an eighth-place finish for a second successive year. In his final year in Hamburg, he became a hero when scored the solitary goal in UEFA Intertoto Cup final on aggregate against Valencia in the 50th minute at home, though he would be sent off 35 minutes later as a result of a second bookable offence, subsequently missing the second leg. Hamburg became one of the three winners of that year’s ‘Cup of the Cupless’ along with RC Lens and Olympique Marseille, thus earning a ticket to UEFA Cup.
His stellar start to the season continued with 5 goals in 3 games (2 v Nürnberg, Stuttgarter Kickers [in DFB-Pokal]; 1 v Arminia Bielefeld. His stunning consistency inspired HSV to beat the league leaders FC Bayern 2-0, where Barba prepared a goal for Piotr Trochowski, on Matchday 7. Whilst they were eliminated in DFB-Pokal by Bayern in the round of 16, Hamburg were also surprisingly knocked out of UEFA Cup by Rapid Bucharest in the last 16 thanks to the away goal rule. In what was Barbarez’s last match for HSV, in order to earn an automatic spot for the group stage of the next season’s UEFA Champions League, all they had to do was to deny Werder Bremen a win. Despite scoring the equaliser at Volksparkstadion, Barbarez and his teammates were stopped by Miroslav Klose, who scored Werder’s winner. That season, though, was his best in Hamburg since die Rothosen alternated between the runners-up spot and 4th place in the league table, eventually finishing third. Barba also became the runner-up to Werder’s Johan Micoud in the assist charts, as well as being the sixth-highest goalscorer of that season.
In a surprising turn of events, Sergej Barbarez joined Bayer 04 in the summer of 2006 for free as the club where he became a legend did not extend his contract due to his age. Michael Skibbe, one of Barbarez’s former managers at Westfalenstadion was now in charge of ‘die Werkself (the Company’s Eleven)‘ at BayArena and needed a team leader in the form of Barba. At that point, Bayer Leverkusen were still a relatively good team in the league, earning top 5 places in a regular fashion. The club still also had quite a few club icons like Schneider, Butt, Kießling and Ramelow. In his first match for the Leverkusen side, they were knocked out of the aforementioned Ligapokal by Schalke on penalties, with Barbarez missing a penalty in the shoot-outs and contributing to his team’s 9-8 loss in the penalties after a 1-1 draw. For Bayer, the first league match of the season v Alemannia Aachen, who returned to Bundesliga after 36 years of absence and were witnessing the last days of the club icon Dieter Hecking, was relatively easy – a 3-0 win was more than ample. That was followed by a series of bleak performances as B04 won only one out of six matches in all competitions, a 3-1 shoot-out win against TuS Koblenz in DFB-Pokal. Barbarez found his first goal for Bayer against H96, his first German club, in a 1-1 draw.
Other than a brilliant performance against Energie Cottbus on 26 November 2006, and a good run in the UEFA Cup, where they were unexpectedly beaten by CA Osasuna 4-0 on aggregate in the last 8, he did not play a big part in the NRW side’s ’06-’07 campaign. The next season might not have been that different, but in that season, Sergej Barbarez was the catalyst behind die Werkself‘s 4-0 thumping v Arminia Bielefeld with 2 goals and 2 assists that match. Other notable events include a sensational last-minute volley against Hertha Berlin assisted by Bernd Schneider in a 3-0 victory -which was also his last BL goal- as well as a brace against Galatasaray (5-1 W) and an emotional opener v Hamburg, both in the UEFA Cup. Last but not least, he broke a 31-year-old Bundesliga record for most appearances by a foreigner, set by Ole Bjørnmose of SV Werder and HSV fame, when he played 324th Bundesliga match against the reigning and defending league champions, VfB Stuttgart, in a victorious effort (3-0). Sergej Barbarez bid his farewell to football after his 330th and final Bundesliga match against Werder Bremen, losing 1-0 by virtue of Markus Rosenberg, on 17 May 2008. His record was first broken by Zé Roberto and is now held by the Peruvian legend, Claudio Pizarro.
A detailed insight into Sergej Barbarez cannot be completed without looking at his eight-year international career. Barbarez got his first cap for Bosnia and Herzegovina in a friendly match v Argentina on 14 May 1998, thanks to Džemaludin Mušović – then manager of BiH. In the match against Estonia on 5 September 1998, he scored his first goal for ‘Zlatni ljiljani (the Golden Lilies)‘ where both countries scored one goal apiece in Sarajevo. A 4-2 loss over Lithuania on 14 October 1998 would be his last appearance for B&H for the next 11 months. He returned to international action against Scotland on 4 September 1999 in a losing effort (2-1). Much to his misfortune, the year 2000 was a disastrous year for his international career, especially since Drago ‘Mišo’ Smajlović replaced Mušović.
He finally put an end to his goal drought for his country on 28 February 2001 against Hungary, followed by a brace v Austria, and a goal against Liechtenstein. He then missed all of BiH’s friendlies in the summer of the same year. Barba scored two of Bosnia’s goals in the friendly v FYR Macedonia (now known as North Macedonia) in what was an eight-goal stalemate and Blaž Slišković’s first match as BiH’s manager. He would not appear for his country for nearly 10 months after the match v Croatia on 17 April 2002. Barbarez came back to the national squad on 12 February 2003 with a goal against Wales, scoring ‘Zmajevi (the Dragons)‘s second goal before John Hartson equalised in the 74th minute.
Later, Barba scored a goal against Luxembourg, as well as inspiring Bosnia’s 2-0 victory over Denmark at Parken with a goal on 2 April 2003. On 12 October 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s footballing future would change for good provided that they beat Denmark on home soil. A victory would mean the world to the Balkan side as it would bring them their major tournament debut in Portugal, but alas, it was not to be. A 12th-minute goal from Martin Jørgensen brought a lead in favour of the Olsen Gang. 27 minutes later, the hosts found a leveller with Elvir Bolić – one of the greatest Bosnian footballers in the modern era. The match ended 1-1, and with Norway managing to score only one goal against an abysmal Luxembourg – given that the one-third of Benelux could not reply any of the 20 goals conceded, BiH had to settle with a fourth place. Romania, who had played all of their group matches earlier, got the play-off spot.
The next year, Barba was made the skipper (in other words, captain) of the national team. It made sense since Barbarez won three consecutive Bosnian Footballer of the Year awards between 2001 and 2003, later known as Idol Nacije (the Nation’s Idol). For him, though, 2004 was not a good year as a Golden Lily, failing to find a goal or an assist. By scoring his first goal for the country for almost 21 months against San Marino on 4 June 2005, one could say that he finally found his lucky boots. Four days later, he put on a remarkable example of leadership against Spain at Mestalla as the Bosnians drew 1-1 as a result of a last-minute goal from Carlos Marchena. Barbarez was involved in BiH’s goal by heading the ball from the edge of his country’s half that later hit David Albelda, Marchena’s teammate from Valencia CF, by accident – Zvjezdan Misimović, one of Bosnia’s many upcoming starlets, eventually slotted the ball home in the 38th minute. A goal v Belgium, and later, Lithuania then followed suit.
On 12 October 2005, Bosnia’s fate was to be decided against Serbia and Montenegro of all countries, and what is worse, at Marakana in Belgrade. This hard-fought match saw SCG beat BiH with an early goal from a poacher in the form of Mateja Kežman – the ex-Chelsea striker. That solitary goal was enough for the hosts to go to the World Cup in Germany the following summer, which ultimately proved to be Serbia and Montenegro’s last tournament as the Montenegrins declared independence a few days before the tournament. During the match in Belgrade, as the Bosnian journalist Saša Ibrulj recalls, Sergej Barbarez failed to persuade Kyros Vassaras, the Greek referee, to call off the game for the sake of his compatriots’ security due to the continuous abuse from the Serbs and Montenegrins. After initially retiring from the national team the next day, Barba would declare his comeback on 2 December 2005. His last three goals for Zlatni ljiljani came in a successive fashion: in a 5-2 friendly loss against Iran, a 2-1 loss in Sarajevo v France where he scored the opener that was the first goal les Bleus conceded since the infamous World Cup final and a 5-2 Euro 2008 qualifier win over Malta. After a 3-1 loss v Hungary at its near worst, Barbarez his last game for the Balkan country in a 2-2 draw against Moldova on 7 October 2006. Blaž Slišković, the manager of BiH at that instant, left his post after a 4-0 loss over Greece four days later.
A biography of a footballer is not all about one’s sporting career, it is also concerned with what is happening behind the scenes. Sergej Barbarez married Ana, his adolescence sweetheart, also from Mostar. He is a father of two sons: Filip-André (b. 1994), who last played for SC Nienstedten from Landesliga Hamburg-Hammonia in the sixth tier of German football; and Sergio-Luis (b.1999). Barbarez also became a member of the board of directors of HSV in January 2009, leaving the post 16 months later. In mid-December 2009, Barba declared his intention to manage Zmajevi only to be blocked by the Republika Srpska FA, one of the three football associations within the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He eventually earned his UEFA Pro Licence on 5 January 2011 in Jablanica along with a few other names, including the former Cottbus goalie Tomislav Piplica – most notable for his unfortunate own goal v Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2002.
Barbarez also wanted to play a part in the re-establishment of the new board of the Bosnian FA, says Ibrulj, upon the country’s ban from all competitions on 1 April 2011 as a result of the FA having three separate presidents, one per major ethnicity (Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs). This nationwide controversy led to some of the stars, including Emir Spahić, Zvjezdan Misimović, and Kenan Hasagić, leaving the national team – the former two came back later. The other obvious reason behind this suspension was, as a man with the alias of Bosnian Football on Twitter states, the extent of corruption within the FA. Amongst the fiercest critics of this shambles were Sergej Barbarez and his former teammate, Elvir Bolić. With the ban lifted on 30 May 2011, Ivica Osim -a Bosnian footballing legend- was put in the charge of the national FA by FIFA. Barbarez was made one of the members of the Normalisation Committee, along with Faruk Hadžibegić, Dušan Bajević, and Jasmin Baković – a change that was welcomed by the fans, according to many football enthusiasts. As of 7 March 2016, Barba is still a member of this committee, now renamed ‘committee for meditation and consulting’.
Some would suggest that Sergej Barbarez was a player from both worlds of fortune. He was lucky since the successful trial he had with Hannover practically changed his life. A more-than-decent stint with 1.FC Union was followed by a decent couple of seasons with Hansa. Then, his career was at its lowest point while playing for BVB. Nevertheless, a move to Volksparkstadion in 2000 proved to be a rewarding one for everyone involved in that transfer for the next six years. Whilst his swansong with Bayer 04 may not have been perfect, Barbarez still put a good performance when required compared to his peers. On the other hand, his eight-year international career was full of swings and misses, as he could not play in a major tournament, be it the European Championship or the World Cup. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only major appearance to date came in 2014, where Zmajevi finished third in Group F in the World Cup – long after Barba retired professional football. He was a late bloomer in the international stage, too, since he received his first call-up in his mid-20s; and was more consistent for BiH in his 30s, as he scored 12 of his international goals during that period.
As for his style of play, it is evident that Sergej Barbarez possessed a lethal left-foot. He was a fine header of the ball, too. Position-wise, he was most efficient when utilised as a ‘false 9’; but could play the role of a centre forward in the national team. As years passed by, he sometimes played as a midfielder or a winger, depending on the formation. He even played as a libero a handful of times – which probably made Barba a utility player, or in the words of Saša Ibrulj, ‘polyvalent’ On the pitch, he was a passionate commander, to the extent that he was booked 86 times and received his marching orders on seven occasions – three of them were as a consequence of a second bookable offence.
Being the eighth-highest appearance making foreigner with 330 Bundesliga matches and the eleventh-most goalscoring ‘legionnaire’ in the league with 96 goals as of 13 July 2020, as well as becoming a one-time joint-Bundesliga ‘Torschützenkönig (Goal King)‘ in 2001 should make Sergej Barbarez a Bundesliga legend in his own right.