(Author’s note: many special thanks to Anthony Zoric for his keen insight and knowledge of Croatian club and national team football as well as his contributions to this piece. For more of his thoughts on this topic, please visit his Twitter profile at @AnthonyZoric).
For many years, the small nation of Croatia has been a breeding ground for some of the premium talents in European football. From Davor Suker , Zvonomir Boban and Robert Prosinecki, to Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, Croatia and its domestic league has blossomed into a top-15 side nationally and a top-20 league worldwide. However, despite a bevy of elite footballers and several impressive academies, the domestic league and national team are among the two most corrupt and troubled institutions in world football with a seemingly endless laundry list of infractions and crimes on its record.
In some ways, it’s almost inconceivable how this festering problem has flown under the radar and hasn’t warranted a deeper investigation into its cause and effects. Croatia is by no means a powerhouse the size of England or Holland, two nations which have had their own shares of crises over the past decade or so, but it is a nation with an established glamour academy, world class players and a history of solid squads despite its limitations. For these issues to go on unresolved for so long is not only an institutional embarrassment, but also a criminal and national one.
To gain an understanding of what is at the root of the problem in Croatia, one simply needs to look at Zdravko Mamic. Recently named #46 on ESPN’s most influential people in football. He is the executive director of the Croatian football club Dinamo Zagreb and also acts as the Vice President of the Croatian Football Federation (CFF). Though he holds the title of Vice President of CFF it is widely known that he is the man in charge and the dictator of Croatian football. Legendary 1998 Croatia coach Ciro Blazevic calls him the “Alpha & Omega of Croatian Football”.
Mamic grew up a Dinamo fan as a child, even going so far as to try out for the team. However, like many children it was not meant to be for him to be a professional footballer and the club did not offer him an opportunity to join its ranks. For years Mamic followed his club in a state of discomfort, loving the team but always looking for a way in. His chance for a breakthrough finally came in the 1980s through his friendship with then-manager Miroslav Ciro Blazevic who allowed him a foothold into the club, a foothold which he has never relinquished since.
When it comes to his involvement in Dinamo Zagreb, the Croatian domestic league and the national team, the list of morally and legally questionable decisions are just as long. Mamic rose to power during a controversial time under Blazevic, slowly rising through the ranks in the club’s hierarchy which, in turn, fueled his aggressive and controversial behavior. From outbursts at the press, to seeing his own personal wealth suspiciously blossom, Mamic was living the Dinamo dream he so long held in his heart even though he was never going to be a superstar on the pitch.
Though Blazevic’s reign at the club came to an end (for the third time) in 1993, Mamic remained and grew bigger and bigger in his omnipotence to the point where he now seems immune to law enforcement with the league bowing to his feet despite much pushback from fans of Dinamo and other clubs.
Mamic’s list of controversial behavior is long and quite despicable. He has, on repeated occasions, threatened and verbally abused journalists, has stated that homosexuals are undeserving of a place in football, has insulted the Serbian ethnic group, has been indicted for publically inciting violence and has been the subject of a number of physical altercations. There is also the subject of conflict of interest which is apparent for all to see. Of the 10 team league, Mamic financially controls two: Dinamo Zagreb and Lokomotiva. Since Lokomotiva entered HNL 1 (the Croatian 1st division) on suspicious grounds they have only achieved one tie against Dinamo in 18 matches. His younger brother, Zoran, is the manager of Dinamo and also serves as the sporting director and his son, Mario, is a high-powered agent shuffling many players through his father’s club. He has been accused of giving orders to national team managers to feature Dinamo players he’d like to sell to bigger European clubs at the expense of the national team’s performances, especially in critical matches. Mamic has also been blamed for dismantling the players union which would look out for players’ interests in HNL1, most notably those that would go months without receiving pay. Those players now have no one to represent them when they have issues with HNL clubs.
So how does the general public feel about Mamic? Anthony Zoric, a fan of rival club Hajduk Split and the Croatian national team, is a fervent critic of Mamic and feels that the majority shares the same sentiment.
“I believe the general public despises Mamić,” Zoric said. “He’s built his wealth in a corrupt system where white collar crime is not punished nearly as much as it should be… Zdravko is a master manipulator who has been the most powerful man in Croatian football for many years now.”
The fans’ discontent, for how Dinamo Zagreb, the league and the national team, has been run is apparent at most matches involving the sides in question. Unfortunately for the fans, Mamic’s retribution has been swift and cruel.
Though overseeing a highly successful period in Dinamo’s history, all things considered, Mamic is hardly supported by the club’s own fanbase. He’s frequently verbally assailed by fans of the club, whether in press conferences, on the pitch or on the street. Mamic, wielding power that no one else in Croatian football enjoys, hasn’t been shy in his punishment as he’s formed a blacklist of approximately 2,000 Dinamo fans who are no longer able to attend matches, both at home or on the road. Mamic has also closed off sections of the Maksimir Stadium where fans chanted anti-Mamic demands that he lose his position. Despite rivalries in the league with Dinamo, fans from rival clubs have shown an admirable amount of support for the beleaguered club and have also found themselves on a similar blacklist.
Dinamo Zagreb and the league
Dinamo’s home is the 40,000 capacity Maksimir Stadium, a stadium which now sometimes struggles to draw 1,000 fans for home games. How can this be? Through a system of boycotting, but more dire, blacklisting at the behest of Mamic. As the most powerful man in the Croatian football federation, Mamic has the power to keep anyone opposing him out of the Maksimir and since Dinamo’s fanbase is a proud one and one aware of the many shady dealings happening behind closed doors, Mamic has spared no expense in showing them his wrath.
Of course, it’s not just Dinamo’s fans who suffer; the opposing fans are naturally punished as well. Hajduk fans, for example, have seen their tickets turned away and have even been held by the police away from the stadium despite not having any criminal records. For this trouble, the club has even been fined even though the club itself did nothing wrong, such is Mamic’s control of the league.
The corruption is so deep-rooted that it even involves players, whether they knew they were partaking in questionable practices or not. Modric, the most high-profile Croatian footballer in the world, is someone whose transfer has come under question. Mamic and his brother, along with former Dinamo club director, are accused of pocketing more than half of the 21 million Euro transfer fee, that less than 50 percent of the fee was actually received by the club and not these three individuals. That’s not where it ends though, as Modric is obligated to give 20 percent of his earnings to Mamic for as long as he’s playing according to Croatian journalist Aleksandar Holiga. Modric isn’t the only one whose money directly fills Mamic’s pockets as high-profile players such as Mandzukic and Mario Kovacic allegedly face the same practice.
The Brazilian born naturalized Croat Eduardo Da Silva was the only one to take Mamic to court and have the illegal contract voided. It is suspected he was kept out of his “dream” match against his birth country Brazil precisely because he crossed Zdravko Mamic, his brother Zoran and Damir Vrbanovic, who were arrested by Croatia’s USKOK-Bureau for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime for illegally funneling money out of Dinamo Zagreb. Modric and Lovren are key witnesses in a case that the organization is putting together against Mamic. Currently, Mamic is out on bail awaiting judicial hearings. However, many doubt he will be punished since he has a high-powered team of lawyers and political ties with the SDP political party which could become very influential.
The national team
Unfortunately, for the fans of Croatian football the problems aren’t only contained within the domestic league as the national team has come under heavy scrutiny in recent times for the poor behavior on many fronts.
In 2014, defender Josip Simunic came under fire for a gesture deemed offensive and sympathetic to the Nazi belief system as he gestured toward a set a fans using a traditional gesture belonging to that of Croatian fascists. Though some in Croatia find the salute to be patriotic, as Simunic shouted the traditional “For the Homeland!” to which the crowd responded “Ready!”, many within the nation find this expression too closely tied to the Nazi regime which ruled in Croatia at the time and this disdain for the cheer manifested itself as a 10 match ban for Simunic.
This behavior doesn’t just fall on Mamic or the players but also with supporters. During a match versus Norway in late March, Croatian fans were observed to be chanting racist songs and lighting off firecrackers. The racist chants struck a particular nerve as it has hardly been the first time the country’s fans have behaved this way having racially abused frequent target Mario Balotelli at the 2012 European Championships. November 2014 saw another ugly incident as fans repeated the same salute Simunic yelled while throwing flares and getting into physical altercations with the police on hand.
The poor behavior compounded itself in a recent closed-door match versus Italy when it was discovered that a swastika had been carved into the pitch without any officials’ notice of it. Cameras caught it midway through the game and it immediately became yet another egg on the face of the national federation. As mentioned, it took part in a closed-door match as the federation and its fans were being punished for offensive fan behavior in the prior national team match.
Some fans have justified such behavior, claiming that the only way for things to improve is for the bottom to completely fall out and enough international pressure be put on the powers-that-be in order to get them to resign. Others believe that the swastika was one cog in a much larger political battle between two political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). There are those who claim that the HDZ is aligned with Mamic and orchestrated the entire swastika fiasco in order to cast a negative light on Mamic and some HNS members who are part of the HDZ. However, when it comes to carving swastikas into the pitch, whether in the name of some noble cause or just for political purposes, there is no way to full-heartedly justify such drastic measures. This goes far beyond political discourse or civil objection to a ruling party, this is using a symbol of the darkest time in the 20th century in order to make a selfish point, no matter how badly the point needs to be made.
This controversy aside, the national team’s form on the pitch has hardly reflected its wealth of talent in the past few years. After barely qualifying for the 2014 World Cup thanks to a 2-0 aggregate over Iceland (needing a 2-0 victory in Zagreb after being held scoreless in the road leg), Croatia was seen by many as a darkhorse to sneak out of its group which featured hosts Brazil. What followed was a loss to Brazil thanks to a dubious penalty, a 4-0 victory over Cameroon and a meek 3-1 loss to Mexico in the deciding group match which saw them crashing out of the tournament. Results since have been mediocre as well as Croatia has struggled mightily in the qualifiers for the 2016 Euros.
Things came to a head as head coach Niko Kovac took aim at his players and their effort levels, to which captain Modric hit back and stated that the players’ efforts shouldn’t be questioned despite the result. Both sides are in the wrong as play has looked far too lethargic, but a strong contingent of the national team fanbase is putting Kovac in its crossfires as a puppet for Mamic and his desire to showcase his Dinamo players for sale purposes rather than putting the best team on the pitch. This is but another example of Mamic’s influence unfortunately extending its reach from top to bottom.
On September 21, Ante Cacic was named head coach of Croatian national team. Most recently he has been coaching Mamic’s club Lokomotiva in HNL 1 and has also coached Dinamo Zagreb. Many national team fans are not happy as they know Mamic will continue to choose the players for the national team as he did for both Stimac and Kovac. The assistants he chose are the controversial Joe Simunic, Ante Mise and goalkeeper coach Marijan Mrmic with none of the coaches having any particularly outstanding experience or credentials.
The Croatian fans have already reacted to the hiring of Cacic. The most loyal fans of national team called Uvijek Vjerni (Always Faithful) have had 4 groups freeze their status as devout fans. Cafes in Croatia have put up signs saying “No more Croatian national team games shown here”. The leader of Torcida Split (Hajduk’s Ultras) said “This is all out war” when describing the situation between Hajduk fans and the HNS. In one day over 20,000 fans joined a group called Bojkot (Boycott) on Facebook to show their anger towards CFF.
So what can be done about this sad state of affairs? The first inclination is for Mamic to be ousted but given the scope of corruption and his foothold in the nation this could prove to be a task of Herculean proportions. Perhaps UEFA and FIFA can put pressure on the league and national team, perhaps in the form of heavy fines and point deductions, but unless the majority of the organization is cleaned out while removing the man at the top little change should be expected. Inside his own club, over 50,000 fans have signed petitions to try and force free elections of the club’s board but Mamic is having none of it. During the summer it seemed that Mamic’s misdeeds would finally catch up to him as he was apprehended by the police, but no action has been taken against him since and he’s now living the life he’s been used to: watching his club top the table, collecting profits from the sale of Kovacic to Real Madrid and partying with friends even after Croatia’s embarrassing 0-0 draw versus Azerbaijan and 2-0 loss to Norway.
“Zdravko Mamić cannot simply be replaced,” Zoric said. “For things to improve at the current federation the entire HNS board must resign. The system has been manipulated to serve the interests of Mamić and his friends.”
Many Croatian fans see Boban as the ideal CFF President due to his popularity within the nation, but laments the fact that Boban is hesitant to throw his name into the ring due to the widespread knowledge that he’d be entering a highly corrupt political arena, despite his knowledge of the nation and love of Croatian football.
“It is apparent that I’m extremely frustrated that I cannot work in Croatian football,” Boban stated in an interview. Unfortunately, there is not room for both my idol and I.”
Perhaps the best hope is that external forces apply relentless pressure on Mamic and his group of cronies as witnessed by the Mamic brothers’ recent arrest.
The despicable behavior by the fans and officials is a real problem, especially when it comes to the dignity of opposing fans and players, but supporters of the national team and league can’t also help but feel a twinge of regret at what could’ve been. With players as talented as Modric, Mandzukic, Rakitic and Kovacic, expectations soared to the point where supporters believed that another golden generation was upon them and that international acclaim shower their footballing heroes. Instead, the national team has been marked by controversy while the domestic league, filled with talented players in its own right, is making more news for corruption and ugly scenes in the stands than the beautiful game itself. For a nation so proud and passionate of its football, the last two decades have turned from dreams of glory, to heads hung in shame. A fate truly undeserving of Croatia’s supporters.
Written by Miran Saric