ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — 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 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, frantically dialing his wife to take the children because police were hauling him off to jail.
‘‘Twenty years of hard work I destroyed in just one month,’’ he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through 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 — sullied by criminal gangs like the one that bribed Cizmek, and by corrupt officials or others cashing in on the billion-dollar web of match-fixing.
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 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 spring 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. Looking back, he says, he realizes he was manipulated.
‘‘Now I see that he didn’t want to be seen handing over the money,’’ he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
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 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, especially with the European economic downturn.
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.
‘‘It would go on for weeks,’’ Cizmek said, shaking his head.
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.
Saka was always somewhere around the field or at the bars where the players gathered, Cizmek said.
A flashy figure in his 50s who drove a BMW X6, he promised to introduce young players to the dozens of foreign coaches and clubs he said he knew.
‘‘He was always offering presents,’’ Cizmek said. ‘‘I had known Vinko for years. We were kind of friends. He was someone who was related to sports, whom I was seeing at the matches. He coached junior teams.’’Continued...