Croatia’s soccer superstar, the former boss ... and a sport dogged by scandal

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images

From his hideaway in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to where he dramatically fled on the eve of his conviction for fraud three years ago, Zdravko Mamić, once the most powerful figure in Croatian football, turned to his Facebook account last Thursday to rub salt in some wounds.

“Netflix: let Narcos go, come here,” he wrote in reference to the hit TV show about the wholesale corruption of Mexico and Colombia by narcotic gangs. “For the last weeks and months I have been quietly working on judicial reform, and today you can see another one in a series of results of what we started together.”

Mamić, a former executive director of Dinamo Zagreb and vice-president of the Croatian Football Federation, had been referring to the breaking news of the arrest of judge Zvonko Vekić and close friend Nataša Sekulić, an accountant, on charges of money laundering.

Vekić had been one of three judges in the eastern Croatian city of Osijek who Mamić had accused of taking a total of €370,000 in bribes back in March. Vekić was alleged to have accepted Mamić’s money, and even a pair of Louis Vuitton shoes during a New Year break in Dubai, in return for dropping a range of fraud and tax-evasion charges against him and his brother, Zoran, a former Croatia international and star manager of the country’s most successful club, Dinamo Zagreb, relating to the embezzlement of club funds through unlawful cuts of transfer fees.

Vekić denies the allegations, including accepting the shoes, and claims he was in Dubai to see his brother-in-law. Sekulić, to whom Mamić claims he handed thousands of euros for shopping trips, is yet to comment.

Vekić had been arrested a few months earlier on suspicion of accepting bribes, but this time, following a hearing on Friday, the judge and Sekulić were held in Zagreb county jail for fear that they might meddle with witnesses.

Liverpool&#x002019;s Croatian defender Dejan Lovren arrives in the eastern Croatian town of Osijek on 1 September 2017 to testify in a corruption trial against Dinamo Zagreb&#x002019;s ex-chairman.
Liverpool’s Croatian defender Dejan Lovren arrives in the eastern Croatian town of Osijek on 1 September 2017 to testify in a corruption trial against Dinamo Zagreb’s ex-chairman. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

But Mamić, apparently full of indignant rage, was apparently not content with that. And what followed has shed a piercing light on the apparently rife and steadily worsening levels of corruption in Croatian society, which studies suggest are breaking the back of the country’s morale.

On Friday dressed in a smart jacket and open neck shirt, Mamić called in the cameras of the Croatian network Dnevnik Nova TV. “Croatia’s biggest cancer is judges,” Mamić claimed. “I’m the only one who has the courage to talk about it in all this trouble. Of course I have another 50 judges to whom I gave money, not for myself but for some other services.”

Mamić’s allegations are yet to be corroborated and the former football boss has not yet shown any interest in helping investigators. The claims also follow the dismissal this week of his appeal, in absentia, by the constitutional court of his six-and-a-half year jail sentence by the country’s supreme court for his role in his celebrity-littered case of fraud.

Mamić’s case first broke six years ago when he was arrested on charges of stealing millions of euros from the club he ran and dominated. He was subsequently found guilty by the county court in Osijek in June 2018, despite his apparent best efforts to pay his way out.

The court found he had been making illegal personal profits on player transfers from Dinamo Zagreb, including the transfer of superstar footballer Luka Modrić who was unlawfully paid 50% of the €21m transfer fee paid by Tottenham Hotspur, only to forward all but €1.9m of the money to Mamić and his family.

Modrić later led his country to a World Cup final in 2018, won four Champions League titles with Real Madrid and is the only footballer other than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to be named best player in the world in more than a decade.

Marin Deskovic, a reporter for the Jutarnji list newspaper, who has covered Croatian crime and corruption for 20 years, said there had to be some scepticism about the strength of Mamić’s latest claims but added that his known close relationships with senior members of the judiciary made them worryingly plausible. “Of course it is shocking,” he said.

Croatia joined the EU on 1 July 2013 to great fanfare and with hope of a new chapter in the troubled country’s history, but evidence suggests there has been a freefall in ethical standards as the pressure to live up to Brussels’ criteria for membership fell away.

Last year Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the outgoing president of Croatia, said corruption was so embedded in her country that at school children who cheated in tests were celebrated as “heroes”. A recent Eurobarometer survey found that a majority of Croatians felt affected by corruption in their daily lives (59%). The country has the largest proportion out of all EU member states of respondents (16%) personally exposed to it.

Related: Croatian corruption starts with cheating at school, says president

Tado Juric, an assistant professor at the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb, said his research suggested that emigration was compounding the problem. “We compared corruption and migration trends from 2012 to 2020 and Croatia’s ranking in the global corruption index, and found that corruption was more pronounced when the number of people leaving the country was higher,” he said. “Common sense says that if people who are not involved in corruption networks emigrate and those who stay are involved in such networks, corruption activities will be even easier to carry out and more frequent. If critics leave, the better and easier for those who are criticised.”

Juric added that “so-called ‘elite corruption’” was “deeply rooted in Croatian politics and had become “a parallel system that undermines the economy and the society”.

“Corruption has done more harm to the Croatian national identity, the sense of unity and solidarity and Croatian culture in general than it has done to the economy, which is undoubtedly great,” he said.

Most Croats will no doubt hope that they do not need to rely on the vengeance of a football boss to clear away the worst of the problem – but perhaps Mamić has made a start.

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