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Jovana Gec / Associated Press, Published February 17 2013

Croatian soccer player feels regret about becoming entangled in match-fixing

ZAGREB, Croatia – Soccer player Mario Cizmek thought it would just be one match. Ease up and let the other team win, he told himself, then collect the payoff and start paying off your debts.

But the broke and desperate athlete soon learned that one match wouldn’t do it. He would have to throw many more.

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.

The Croatian midfielder was the perfect target for fixers: He was nearing the end of his career, his financially unstable club hadn’t 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.

An examination of Cizmek’s case turns up contrasting portraits of the

36-year-old.

One is of a victim – a player forced into match-fixing 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 soccer by FIFA, the world soccer body. That’s the picture painted by FIFPro, the global players’ union, which has used Cizmek’s story to warn players.

Croatian prosecutors, armed with reams of phone calls and text messages from police wiretaps, have a different take. 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 2010. The authorities said he organized the players, handed out sealed blue envelopes of euros, and promised that they could stop whenever they wanted.

Cizmek readily admits he delivered the payments but says it was only because his apartment was closest to the fixer.

“Now I see that he didn’t want to be seen handing over the money,” he said.

Cizmek joined FC Zagreb age 18, and played there for eight years.

“Those were the best years. All my dreams came true,” he said. “I signed a professional contract and was among the better players. They thought highly of me. 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 league. 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.

The entire FC Croatia Sesvete locker room was in an uproar for months, with players trying to make ends meet, Cizmek said. A study by the FIFPro union reported that more than 60 percent 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.

“Every other day we would ask whether we would be paid, and they would say ‘Yes, on Monday.’ Then we say, ‘OK, on Monday,’ ” he said. “But there would be no pay on Monday – only a promise to be paid Wednesday – and then no money that day either.”

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 soccer powerhouse that has won Croatia’s national title every year since 2006.

“He was always offering presents,” Cizmek said. “I had known Vinko for years. He was someone who I was seeing at the matches. He coached junior teams.”

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

Unbeknownst to any of them, Croatian police were already running a wiretap on Saka after being tipped off by German investigators.

Croatian prosecutors said Saka bribed up to 10 people on Cizmek’s team, and another five tied to either FC Varteks or FC Medimurje.

Saka ended up being convicted of fraud, bribery and conspiracy and going to jail. His lawyer confirmed the plea bargain but wouldn’t discuss the case.

The deal involving Cizmek came together at Fort Apache, a steakhouse on the truck route 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 FC 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 even 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 away, saving up to pay an overdue tax bill.

The stakes were raised for an April 3 match against FC 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 Croatia Sesvete players testified in court. Cizmek said Saka did not explain why.

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

Player Ante Pokrajcic 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 halftime score. Only then did Pokrajcic realize the game had been fixed.

The team lost 4-2, but Saka delivered only about half of what was promised, according to players’ testimony.

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

The criminal gang usually has 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 keep escalating until the player quits, retires or gets caught. Some implicated in match-fixing have even committed suicide.

When Cizmek approached the goalkeeper and a midfielder about fixing an April 17 game against FC 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 told the AP. “But I couldn’t do it. ... We told them, ‘No more.’ ”

Saka exploded in anger but made sure not to bet, Cizmek said. FC 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.