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Darijo Srna mourns father in his own way as Croatia compete at Euro 2016

Darijo Srna is fulfilling his late father's wish of competing at Euro 2016 for Croatia.

LILLE, France -- The Srna brothers have mourned their father these past two weeks in their own ways. On Saturday, Darijo will take the field once again as the captain of the Croatian team, his 133rd time to represent his country, and his older brother, Renato, will be in the stadium cheering him on against Portugal.

Friday afternoon, Renato drove into Lille, a 1,200-mile road trip from Croatia heading west across Europe. The brothers are close, a bond they learned watching their father and uncle, who survived genocide and World War II together.

Their uncle has been gone for a decade or more, and now their dad is gone, too.

"My father was the last one," Renato says of that generation of his family.

These have been a trying 12 days.

On June 13, Uzeir Srna died an hour or two after the Croatia's first game in the 2016 Euros. Darijo, 34, flew home for the funeral, returning to France in time to lead his team onto the field. He wept during the national anthem, the cameras focusing on the tears rolling down his nose.

In Lille, Renato sat in the lobby of a nondescript Holiday Inn and talked quietly about his dad and how the family learned over the years about the horror of his childhood. Renato, 47, said he didn't even know the full details until he was nearly 20. "He wasn't very open about this," he says. "He didn't want to talk about it with everybody. It's a tough thing for a father to tell a son. It was a burden."

Uzeir Srna was born in a village in eastern Bosnia, to a Muslim family living under the threat that Orthodox Chetniks would come and kill them. One night in 1941, sure they'd survived the worst of the ethnic cleansing, the family returned home. The Chetniks set fire to their town, going door to door. Uzeir was a baby, according to a translated Bosnia newspaper account. His father grabbed him and his teenage brother, Safet, and ran out of the house into the woods. His mother, who was pregnant, tried to follow but didn't make it. Neither did his sister.

The Chetniks burned them alive.

His father got a job in a cafe to support his boys, but a stray bullet killed him during a shift, one of those horrible accidents of a war, and the two orphans Uzeir and Safet were now all alone in the world. They never learned where their mother or father were buried. Along the way, the brothers got separated in the chaos. The timeline is fuzzy, so the order isn't clear, but eventually Uzeir ended up in an orphanage and then in the care of a foster family. They changed his name and started to treat him as their own, giving him a new life. That should have been it -- one more family destroyed for no reason at all -- if it weren't for Safet.

He never stopped looking for his brother.

Armed with only the flimsiest of information, he pieced together whatever clues he could find, eventually hearing of a boy in Slovenia about the right age, born in eastern Bosnia, who nobody knew much about. He went and found this boy.

It was Uzeir.

The brothers were reunited and remained together their whole lives.

Uzeir Srna died an hour or two after Croatia's first game. Darijo flew home for the funeral, returning to France in time to lead his team onto the field.

In the years that followed, Uzeir didn't talk much about his mother and father or what he felt or the scars he carried. But he loved to talk about football, just as much as he loved to play. Renato was born in France because his dad moved there to play amateur ball, getting a day job to support his passion. Uzeir lived modestly his whole life, even after his son started signing multimillion dollar contracts and offering to get Uzeir anything he wanted. He never left his simple house, and that's where he spent the last weeks of his life, sick in bed.

On June 6, Croatia played its final tuneup match before the Euros, with Uzeir too ill to even sit at the dinner table. As soon as the game ended, Darijo rushed home so the family could be together. They all learned that lesson well. Darijo asked whether he should skip the tournament and stay there with the family, but his father would not hear of it. He told his son that he'd made a commitment, a bond that shouldn't be broken, and he made Darijo promise he'd play.

"Go and finish it," Uzeir said.

Seven days later, with his son in France, Uzeir died.

The funeral was simple. It wasn't religious. No priests or imams attended, no grand pronouncements about the afterlife. Simple and quick, without a lot of fuss.

"The way he lived," Renato said, "was the way he was buried."

One person spoke, an old friend, and he didn't mention a single word about the war or the horrors, just telling an old story about Uzeir playing football a long time ago, when he did so well in a tryout that a Croatian team signed him, and everybody there knew the rest, how Uzeir Crna built a simple but grateful life there and how his son became one of the most beloved citizens in the country, captain of the national team. The president of Croatia sent flowers.

A senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.


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