smir Begovic was in the midst of a year less ordinary long before a pandemic brought football to a shuddering halt. “Unorthodox?” he asks with a laugh. “A great couple of chapters in my book one day. That’s one of the reasons I love football, you just don’t know what is round the corner. As much as people want to plan, it’s such a reactive game. Things on a daily or weekly basis can change your future.”
Twelve months ago the goalkeeper had not featured in the closing stages of a Bournemouth season during which Premier League status was comfortably retained. If an exit from the Vitality Stadium seemed likely, nobody could have reasonably predicted what happened next.
Begovic spent the first half of the 2019-20 campaign with Qarabag, where a Europa League campaign delivered useful distraction from the Azerbaijan domestic scene. By January he found himself in an altogether different movie as Pepe Reina’s move from Milan to Aston Villa left the Italian club needing an experienced goalkeeper to work alongside Gianluigi Donnarumma.
“He can be anything he wants to be,” Begovic says of the 21-year-old. “He is one of the top goalkeepers in the world right now and if he keeps going like this it’s only a matter of time before he becomes unanimously the best. He is phenomenal, a huge talent and a good guy too, with a very good work rate. What he has already achieved in the game is quite remarkable really. I can only see good things in the future for him.”
If Donnarumma is the boy wonder, Begovic can also derive thrills from playing and training alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The return of the Swede, now 38, to Milan triggered scenes of euphoria. “He has had such a huge impact; his personality, his leadership, his quality on the pitch,” says Begovic. “The best thing about him is how competitive he is. At his age, he is still pushing every day to be the best. He is a team player in so many ways, his standards make everyone else better. He can change games with presence.” In short? “A world-class player who is a joy to watch.”
As Milan and other Serie A clubs returned to training three weeks ago, Italy assessed the grim impact of coronavirus. Begovic and his family returned to England, their home of 15 years, soon after the season was halted in early March. They watched the trauma in northern Italy from afar. “When I first came back, nobody was in the streets and there was absolutely nothing happening,” says the 32-year-old. “It seems like now we are getting back to somewhat normal life again.”
Football, naturally given the Italian psyche, seems key. “I think that’s been a huge factor in trying to get back as soon – and as safely – as possible here,” Begovic says. “It’s part of the culture, part of the religion here, especially in Milan. If we can bring it back for people then that should be positive all round. There has been a real collective effort across the country.
“Training has been absolutely fine. So far the club and everyone involved has done a great job and you don’t feel uncomfortable at all. It has been tough, like pre-season really, but it’s awesome after such a long break to be back doing what we love doing. It is an honour to be part of this club. I have come to Milan and seen what this club means.”
Begovic, who left war-gripped Bosnia as a four-year-old, was thinking of others long before coronavirus took hold. His expanding goalkeeper academy, with bases in Bosnia and England, involves 10 coaches presiding over 60 youngsters. Such is its popularity that there are regular calls to offer outfield classes, too. Lockdown did not stall the project. “We have tried to keep the kids engaged as much as we can, through Zoom and other technology. We have had online sessions, video analysis, educational sessions. The parents have been thankful for a bit of purpose as well.
“It is a way of sharing knowledge of the game and what I have learned from the journey I’ve been on. I feel like it has had positive impact because I am a current player. When we put together philosophies and the way we want to coach the kids, it is very much related to the modern game because I am still playing at the highest level. There can [otherwise] be pushback from people: ‘He used to play, this was 10 years ago, this was 20 years ago.’”
Begovic’s academy has partnered FirstPoint with a view to providing US scholarships. His younger brother, Denis, is a student in North Carolina. “We want to open up as many opportunities as possible; some kids have been picked up by professional clubs, some by semi-professional clubs and the thing missing was a north American route,” the goalkeeper says. “That gives you so many opportunities; NCAA from a sporting point of view but also education and life experience as well. We want to give our kids every opportunity to stay in the game.”
Bournemouth’s upcoming mission is to remain in the Premier League. If Begovic is even remotely bitter about circumstances on the south coast, he hides it perfectly. Perhaps present surroundings would deem any such sentiment laughable in any case. “I hope things work out for them, of course,” says Begovic. “There are some superb people at that club and a very good manager. With the people at the helm and the people running the team there, I’d be confident things will be all right. It’s a club that has done so many of the right things.” Begovic’s own dedication continues to pay dividends.