Cedar Rapids Inferno: From Bosnia with Love
A fierce love of the game has always burned bright in the heart of Cedar Rapids Inferno owner, manager, and player, Kenan Malicevic. Originally from Travnik, a small town half the size of Cedar Rapids in central Bosnia and Herzegovina, Malicevic was trained at the youth academy of local professional side NK Travnik before leaving his home to make a new one 5,000 miles away in Iowa. He shooting boots led Cedar Valley High School to a conference title in 2006, and then he top scored for the Drake Bulldogs during their NCAA Elite Eight year in 2009-10.
A short professional career in Bosnia, Poland, and Croatia followed, before he was drawn back to Iowa. He may have left the game, but the game never left him. "The game of soccer has been my passion since I was three years old," Kenan told me as we sat down before the Inferno's first ever league game, the inaugural East Iowa Derby against Union Dubuque. "The idea for the Inferno came up after the team that was here in town decided to move out. I was playing in pickup games and realized that we didn't have a local team, and I wanted to provide something for the local kids that didn't have an opportunity to show their talent on another stage than just a city league."
But Kenan might still be playing pickup games and Cedar Rapids might still not have a team if it were not for a personal tragedy that pushed the Iowa transplant to make this vision a reality. "The main reason that led to all of this was the fact that my best friend passed away a couple of years ago. He was a huge soccer fan and he would always talk to me about how he wished that we had more professional teams in the area. He was a big fan of traveling and seeing the players play and he and I would talk soccer for hours. We were just inseparable when it came to that stuff."
As a lasting tribute to his friend, Kenan even named the team based on conversations they had. "The Inferno name came from him, because on a few occasions, he said that my love for the game was spreading like an inferno. He was always fascinated by some of my tactical ideas and how much I loved the game and what I would do in certain situations when we were watching professional soccer. So that stuck with me, and I decided to name the team in honor of him."
After that spark that lit an Inferno, things have moved quickly. The Cedar Rapids franchise was only announced in January of 2019, but was up and running for its April 27 début in the UPSL against Union Dubuque, their in-state rival who themselves débuted in 2018. Kenan insists that much of the credit for this should go to Cliff Conrad, Dubuque president and co-founder and now UPSL Midwest conference manager. "Cliff was a great support. I was playing for Dubuque at the time, but I wanted to let them know that I was interested in starting something like that here. He was a great support from day one, those guys were absolutely amazing. Anything I needed, within minutes I would find the answer."
After talking to Cliff for a previous Spotlight piece, it seemed pretty clear that Kenan would be missed this season. But Kenan’s sense of loyalty couldn't bring him to appear against his former teammates. "I really enjoyed my time there. I was great friends with all the guys, matter of fact I just walked into the locker room, gave them a bunch of hugs, and wished them good luck. I will play a few games this season with the Inferno, but I have promised Dubuque that I'm not playing against them. I'm just happy to be coaching these guys, I'm happy to be out there any playing. I'm still in pretty good shape so I can keep up with them, but my primary goal is to coach."
To that end, Kenan is working his way up the coaching qualifications ladder and working hard to translate his multinational experience onto the playing fields of the Midwest. "I already have the majority of my certifications done as far as coaching. I'm two licenses away from the top level. My main goal is to continue coaching and take this team further if possible. But that requires a lot of time and money, so I'm not too worried yet. There's obviously a huge difference here in terms of college guys, high school guys. As a matter of fact, I have a middle school kid playing with us. There were some coaches who gave me an opportunity at 12 or 13 to play with older guys and that helped me grow as a player. That experience has been great for our 14 year-old so far and he definitely deserves a chance to play at this level.
"In Europe it was a different life, different mentality, because those guys don't see it as just a game. It's professional, it's business. It's a battle, and those guys thrive on those battles, those 50/50 tackles, being hit, falling down, scoring goals, a little bit of trash talk here and there. We here see it as not fair play, which is understandable because the sport is still growing. At the end of the day it's a contact sport, and the referees, everybody that plays the game in Europe understands that the contact comes with the risk of injuries and whatnot. In the US it has the potential to grow and it's growing daily, but especially on the youth level I think we need a little more bravery instilled in our kids and to just let them know that yes it's OK to have fun, but also if we tell them not to head the ball, close your eyes, stay away from tackles, it doesn't teach you how to become a pro later in your life."
So you train hard to play hard? "Exactly. You can NOT show up with less than 100% in practice and expect to be 100% at the game, that never works. I'm a big believer in that. All of the teams that I've been part of in the US were always all about 'be careful what you do in practice, be careful of this,' and I say that to my guys as well. But I also told the guys on the first day of practice that they may not practice without shinguards. We are well aware that tackles happen, people slip, they can hit you and break your leg. So you protect yourself as much as you can, but I don't want them to stay away from 50/50 tackles and slide tackles and stuff like that just because it's their teammate. We need to learn to be tough in practice in order to play like beasts in the game. But when I do see those flashes of brilliance in practice, those little sparks of young guys that remind you of the top level talent, I will pause practice immediately to recognize the guy. Just so they all know that is something they need to be looking to do every single time, because that consistency is the goal. But we're not trying to compare ourselves to anyone, we're just trying to get out there each and every day, and just get better, as a team."
The game would eventually end 2-2, with the Inferno demonstrating grit to come from behind twice to snatch a point in their first ever fixture. "It was a good battle in snowy weather, and I was glad to see our guys not give up and fight hard,” Kenan later told me. “We have been improving each and every day since then, and I am excited to see how we do against Dubuque when we play at their stadium."
Kenan was unable to resist the siren call of the soccer pitch in the Inferno's next game, scoring a penalty against DeKalb County United to win his side another point. It's safe to assume that he won't be putting on a repeat performance against Union Dubuque.