The beautiful game ... of life

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:33 PM ET

There's a tremendous, gut-wrenching pressure on many professional athletes to perform -- maybe it's in a Stanley Cup final, a World Cup soccer game ... or lining up a putt at the U.S. Open golf tournament.

And yet it really all is fun and games compared to the actual, do-or-die situation faced by local soccer referees Mahmut Adulovic and his brother Ahmet 14 years ago.

Their chilling task was an October dash 400 or so yards across a frigid river from Bosnia to the safety of Croatia.

The distractions were the machine gun bullets being fired at them by Serbian troops.

"I remember seeing some people sink," Ahmet, now 37, said while sitting at the dining room table of his stylish Kanata home.

Were they victims of the gunfire or their swimming inadequacies?

"I'm not sure," said Mahmut, 41, who lives only a few houses down the street. "I was just focused on saving my life."

Just as the Adulovics were by fleeing their homeland in the first place.

The war in Bosnia from 1992-95 saw 200,000 innocent people killed, with more still unaccounted for. Ahmet and Mahmut lost at least 10 close family members and many friends.

It would be nothing for Serbian soldiers to bust into someone's house and open fire, they said.

"We didn't witness any (murders), but we did come to the house later and see family members (dead)," said Ahmet. "If we were there we would have been killed as well. It's just luck that we weren't."

The sanctuary of Slovenia was no paradise, either. There, the Adulovics spent the better part of three years as refugees.

"It was a life of hell, very difficult," said Mahmut. "We worked very hard for almost nothing."

"We'd do anything," said Ahmet. "We worked for food, to survive."

One day an acquaintance suggested the brothers apply for immigration into Canada. A great idea, they thought. They took the initial steps of the process, but nothing was heard back for months. Just as they had almost lost all hope, they received notice a formal meeting with Canadian council had been granted.

Unable to speak a word of English, the brothers attended the interview then began another long, seemingly endless wait.

Then, out of the blue, came a letter. The young family -- Mahmut, Ahmet, their mother Rasema, Ahmet's wife Dinka Cutic and their eight-month-old daughter Rasema were granted acceptance into Canada.

"For sure," said Mahmut. "It was one of the happiest moments of my life."

Had it not been for the war in Bosnia, Mahmut and Ahmet would probably still be there -- and the former could very well be a ref at the World Cup. He was young and considered one of the best in his country, working Division II games in front of 20,000 fans. The next step in his career seemed obvious. FIFA appeared to be in his cards.

But starting a new life in a new country also meant starting at the bottom rung of soccer referees. He has progressed from Level 4 to Level 1 in Canada -- "a small miracle," he calls the rise -- and now oversees university games as well as various men's and women's leagues in the city.

Ahmet, also a ref, has his Level 3 qualification, and rarely a night goes by when one or both isn't doing a game somewhere.

Ahmet says "people are very happy" when they see an Adulovic is going to officiate their game.

"The teams, the people who play soccer ... they know us and they really like us," said Mahmut, who also coaches the Under-18 Kanata Lightning.

"IT'S AN EXCELLENT FEELING"

"It's an excellent feeling. We show people we are there for them."

Naturally, Ahmet and Mahmut are watching the World Cup with interest and they agree that the refs are doing a very good job.

They can only imagine what it would be like to be one of them.

"For each ref, what they're getting paid to do those games is not important," Ahmet said when asked what he guesses to be the wage. "They're not even thinking about the money. To be the ref in front of that many people ... it's like some people dream about travel. It would be a dream."

Ahmet, who was in the hi-tech industry as a fibre-optics technician for six years, now owns an upgrading and maintenance company. Mahmut is a maintenance man at a small private school in Carp.

"We are proud Canadians and we are very thankful to be in this country," said Mahmut.

"We have Bosnia and Herzegovina in our heart," Ahmet said of his beat-up and recovering homeland, "but this is our country now."

There are plans for a visit next year, however. To see the house they own together, to see the friends and family that are still in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And to get back on a soccer pitch, made of the soil they played on as children.

A friend in power, the president of the referees' association, has promised the Adulovics some games when they come back. Ahmet will probably ref a Division II game. Mahmut, though, will be given a Premier League match. "That will be a huge experience," he said.

How huge? Well, there could very well be 80,000 fans in the stands. "It'd be very exciting," said Mahmut.

But no pressure.

At least, nothing like he and his brother have already been through.

No dodging bullets this time.

This would be all fun and games.


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