As a young girl, Irena Bjelica had to furtively sneak to football training in defiance of a family who thought she would be better suited as a dancer or model.
Today the 24-year-old is a defender for one of Bosnia’s top women’s football clubs, a team that is winning matches but still trying to win more fans as it battles gender norms in the patriarchical Balkans.
“My relatives were all against it,” recalled Bjelica, adding that only her grandfather supported her love of football as a youngster in neighbouring Montenegro, where she grew up.
As she proved her prowess on the pitch, the rest of her relatives eventually came around. But she has also found a different kind of family in Emina, a club founded three years ago in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar.
“The coach and the president are like our parents…while the other players in the club are like my sisters,” explained Bjelica, who lives with her teammates in the house of the club’s founders, who sleep in the living room so that the players can share bedrooms upstairs.
Emina is part of a small sporting scene for women in Bosnia, a conservative country where many still see football as a man’s game.
Their sporting infrastructure also pales in comparison to many of the countries competing in the Women’s World Cup in France, which Bosnia did not qualify for.
Only 1,264 women — compared to 41,625 men — play in registered clubs in the Balkan state.
The 31 women’s clubs mostly owe their existence to football enthusiasts, such as Emina’s founders Sevda Becirovic Tojaga, a 56-year-old pharmacist, and her husband Zijo, 57.
The idea was born in May 2016 while Sevda was watching an international women’s match on TV and called her husband to say: “We are going to start a club.”
They have ignored the boys who look at female players with an “evil eye” or call them “lesbians,” she added.
Sponsorships from suppliers of Sevda’s pharmacy help cover each player’s 200 euros ($223) of monthly “pocket money”.
– ‘There to be looked at’ –
“In our country, people still consider football to be exclusively male,” explained the coach Zijo, a former player and coach for Velez Mostar.
Parents still “try to keep their daughters away from football,” he added.
Some prominent Balkan football players and coaches have welcomed their female counterparts to the sport.
But others have expressed galling disapproval.
In a 2014 documentary by Al-Jazeera Balkans, Zdenko Jelic, a former director of Zeljeznicar of Sarajevo, made the lewd remark that fans would only go to a women’s match “to hunt down a T-shirt that is rising up”.
“Women’s football, women’s judo, women’s boxing… And then what? I would prohibit all this by a galactic law!” he added.
Sports commentator Milojko Pantic also sighed that “women are becoming men, men are becoming women”.
Meanwhile, former Croatian coach Ciro Blazevic admitted to having seen women play “wonderful” football.
But he claimed that the pitch was not their rightful place.
“I love women so much… I respect them so much that I’m afraid they might be hit in the breast by an elbow,” he said.
“They are there to be looked at, to be in a window, to be cuddled, protected and not crushed.”
– Under one roof –
Minela Gacanica, a 19-year-old striker for Emina, believes the culture is slowly changing, even if it is only one fan at a time.
“Everyone criticised us” in the beginning, she said. But after “people come to see the game once, they realize that it’s sometimes better than a boys’ game.”
Named after a poem by local writer Aleksa Santic, the Emina club has thundered up to the top of the table in the first division this season, sitting third behind Iskra Bugojno and champions SFK 2000 of Sarajevo.
Today the best players are being selected for the national team, though they are still hoping to bring out bigger crowds.
“We barely manage to attract 50 or 100 spectators here, even when it’s the selection that’s at stake,” said Zijo.
The group is also ethnically diverse, with women hailing from Bosnia’s Muslim, Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat groups in a country that is politically divided along these lines.
For the club, this diversity is a point of pride.
“Our club demonstrates that religious affiliation is not a barrier,” says playmaker Dragica Denda, 28, a Bosnian Serb from southeast Trebinje.
“What matters is the human being, and their behaviour.”