Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Croatian footballer 'destroyed 20 years of hard work' after accepting money to fix games

Mario Cizmek discovered once a player has fixed a game, he is trapped forever - something that could ultimately cost him his liberty.
Croatian soccer player Mario Cizmek is carried by his teammates and fans after victory in a national cup match in Zagreb.
Croatian soccer player Mario Cizmek is carried by his teammates and fans after victory in a national cup match in Zagreb.
Mario Cizmek thought it would just be one match. Ease up and let the other team win, he told himself, collect the pay-off and start paying off debts.

But the broke and desperate footballer soon learnt that one match would not do it. He would have to throw another game, then another, then another.

And so it went until, in what he described as his "worst moment", he was arrested at his home in front of his two daughters on charges of match fixing and hauled off to jail.

"Twenty years of hard work I destroyed in just one month," he said.

The Croatian midfielder was the perfect target for fixers: he was nearing the end of his career, his financially unstable club had not paid him a regular salary for 14 months, and he owed money on back taxes and his pension.

Cizmek's story is typical of how the world's most popular sport is increasingly becoming a dirty game - sullied by criminal gangs like the one that bribed Cizmek, and by corrupt officials or others cashing in on the billion dollar web of fixing matches.

An examination of Cizmek's case turns up contrasting portraits of the 36 year old with quick feet and an engaging smile.

One is of a victim, a player forced into betraying his sport by an unscrupulous club and preyed upon by a shadowy former coach convicted of bribery, fraud and conspiracy in a Croatian match-fixing case and banned for life from football by Fifa.

That is the picture painted by FIFPro, the global players' union, which has used Cizmek's story to warn players.

Croatian prosecutors, armed with reams of telephone calls and text messages from police wiretaps, have a different narrative.

At a match-fixing trial at the County Court of Zagreb, they portrayed Cizmek as the ringleader who got several FC Croatia Sesvete players to throw six games and tried to fix a seventh in spring 2010.

The authorities said he organised the players, handed out sealed blue envelopes containing euros, and promised that they could stop whenever they wanted. Cizmek says he delivered the payments but that was only because his apartment was closest to the fixer.

Cizmek joined FC Zagreb on a junior scholarship, signed at 18, and played there for eight years.

"Those were the best years. All my dreams came true," he said. "I was even a captain of this club."

After stints in Israel and Iceland, he returned home to play for FC Croatia Sesvete in the country's second tier. In 2008, Cizmek scored the goal that sent his team into the top division. That goal benefited every player on the team and lined the pockets of the club's owner, Zvonko Zubak.

But the team fell on hard times during the European economic downturn.

The Sesvete locker room was in uproar for months, with players trying to make ends meet, Cizmek said. A study by the FIFPpro union reported that more than 60 per cent of Croatian players do not get paid on time.

"We had no money, and we no longer spoke about training or football, but only about how we were going to survive," Cizmek said in an interview. The club broke several promises to pay the players.

One man who hung around the players offering advice and sympathy - and loans to those short on cash - was Vinko Saka, a former assistant coach for Dinamo Zagreb, the powerhouse that has won Croatia's national title every year since 2006.

Saka was always around the field or at the clubs where the players gathered, Cizmek said. A flashy figure in his 50s who drove a BMW X6, Saka promised to introduce young players to the dozens of foreign coaches and clubs he said he knew.

The midfielder Dario Susak, then 22, testified that Saka suggested he could help him get a contract with a foreign club, then loaned him US$2,550 (Dh9,366) at a high interest rate. Once he owed the money, Susak testified, Saka told him he would have to lose matches.

Unknown to any of them, Croatian police were already running a wiretap on Saka after being tipped off by German investigators. The Croatian prosecutors said Saka bribed up to 10 people on Cizmek's team, and another five tied to either the Varteks or Medimurje clubs.

The deal involving Cizmek came together at Fort Apache, a restaurant on the road between Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and Slovenia. Cizmek and his goalkeeper met there with Saka and two associates on March 25, 2010, to fix a game with Zadar two days later, according to players' testimony and police transcripts.

Six players would get $24,220, although the money was not divided equally. One of the unwritten rules of match fixing is that the goalkeeper gets the biggest share because his statistics suffer the worst blow; defenders get the next-biggest, midfielders get less and strikers often are not included in the fix.

The result: Zadar won 2-1 as Cizmek, one of the best players, stayed on the bench. After the game, he said, he collected $2,550, bought his kids a bunk bed and stashed the rest, saving up to pay an overdue tax bill.

Cizmek saw himself as someone stealing money from crooks to put food on the table for his teammates and their families who were being crushed by an unjust system, but the match-fixing train had begun rolling, and it would prove difficult to stop.

The stakes were raised for an April 3 match against Slaven Belupo, according to players' testimony. This time it was $51,000 for eight players. They not only had to lose, but to do so by at least three goals. That enabled those in on the deal to win two bets in one match. Cizmek's team lost 4-0. Saka, however, delivered only $43,300, eight Sesvete players testified in court. Cizmek said Saka did not explain why.

The demands for an April 14 game against Rijeka were even greater: $51,000 to trail at half time, a final score that included more than three goals, with the team losing by at least two goals, Cizmek testified.

Ante Pokrajcic, a player, testified that he was happy to have scored a goal until the team's owner stormed into the locker room, cursing about the 1-1 half-time score. Only then did Pokrajcic realise the game had been fixed. The team lost 4-2, but Saka delivered only about half what was promised, according to players' testimony. They were furious. In the next game, they won 3-1 against Inter Zapresic.

But another unwritten rule of fixing matches soon became clear to Cizmek: once a player has fixed a game, he is trapped forever.

The criminal gang usually have enough evidence to get a player thrown out of the sport for life. Plus, the shame alone will keep him silent, and the fixer's demands will escalate until the player quits, retires or is caught. Some implicated in match fixing have committed suicide.

When Cizmek approached the goalkeeper and a midfielder about fixing an April 17 game against Lokomotiva, they refused. He handed the money back to Saka two hours before the game, he said. "If I was really the ringleader, I could have made them do it," he said. "But I couldn't do it . We told them, 'No more'."

Saka exploded in anger but made sure not to bet, Cizmek said. Lokomotiva won 2-1 anyway, and Cizmek said he scored a goal "just for pride" in the second half.

For the last three games of the season, Saka went above the players' heads to fix the game, according to players' testimony. Those involved now included the coach and one of the owner's sons, both of whom were convicted in the case.

With substantial bribes now going to the coach, the payouts for the players grew meagre: $22,300 for seven players in the last game, according to testimony.

In total, Cizmek earned $26,130 from match fixing, not as much as the goalkeeper Ivan Banovic ($37,600), the defender Jasmin Agic ($35,000) or the coach Goran Jerkovic ($33,000), according to the findings of the court in its sentencing document.

The season ended in early May but police did not come knocking until June 8. Cizmek was arrested at his home and taken to Zagreb's Remetinec prison, where he stayed until July 15. His wife handed police the $20,000 he had been saving for his tax bill. The bunk beds were all he had to show for his money.

He went on trial for fixing matches with 14 others. With the wiretaps, prosecutors had a very strong case. Cizmek made a full confession, pleaded guilty and gave testimony to the players' union against match fixing. But he and the coach still got the longest sentence - 10 months.

The goalkeeper and four others were given nine months; two players got eight months; and the youngest member of the team, a 20-year-old midfielder, got a seven-month suspended sentence.

They are now free, awaiting the result of their appeal.

Saka cut a plea bargain with prosecutors and was sentenced to one year in prison. The Zagreb court ordered him to pay back $58,800 of the $844,000 it estimated his fixing operation made in Croatia. Saka served his time in jail and then went to Italy to be questioned in a match-fixing investigation there. He is back living in an affluent Zagreb neighbourhood, and still drives the BMW.

Cizmek is trying hard not to be bitter, but he dreads going back to prison. He is angry that Saka got a better plea deal than the players and does not hold out hope for his appeal. He says his club still owes him money but went bankrupt in 2012 and dissolved.

He works on his family's organic farm, selling jams and berry tea at farmers' markets, but is just scraping by. In one of his last interviews, Cizmek mentioned his recent divorce, and worry lines around his eyes seemed deeper.

He mourns for his lost football career and does not know what he will do with the rest of his life.

"I should have just taken my football shoes and hung them on the wall and said: 'Thank you, guys' and gone on to do something else," he said.

He knows what he did was wrong. "Everything I lost is my fault. I need to take the responsibility. I don't blame anyone, not even Saka," he said. "No one made me do this."

He cited an old Balkan expression: "The one who confesses, half their sins will be forgiven."

"I have opened my soul to you," he said. "I hope it will pay me back in karma for being so honest."

* Associated Press

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Updated: February 17, 2013 04:00 AM

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