Another one. Handcuffed and ashamed, another football legend is arrested. Nenad Pralija, the former Hajduk Split, Espanyol and Reggina player and a Croatian international (11 caps) is arrested under suspicion of being part of match fixing during his spell as RNK Split sporting director. A serious crisis is shaking Croatian football - USKOK, Croatian Bureau for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime, has arrested four people linked with match fixing in the last month. But the question remains whether this is a real war against corruption or just a show for the gallery.
It all started in July 2010 - USKOK arrested 21 people suspected of match fixing and 15 players were convicted last year. But, in the meantime, nothing spectacular happened in Croatian football. The public was shocked at first, but it seemed that everything calmed down after a few months. Until December the events resembled an action scene from a crime movie.
Hajduk Split president Hrvoje Maleš arranged a meeting with Željko Širić, a former international referee and vice president of the Croatian FA, and Stjepan Djedović, head of referees. They asked for €90,000 to provide Hajduk “a fair refereeing”. The whole action lasted for more than two months, and at the end, Maleš came to the meeting with a briefcase filled with €30,000 of marked notes “to pay an advance”. The money was exchanged, hands shaken, and the agreement was final. What Širić and Djedović didn’t know was the fact that Maleš came to the meeting wired. The whole thing was set up made in conjunction with USKOK. Širić and Djedović naïvely fell for it, and are today in prison, waiting for trial.
The Croatian media claim that there has been a price list of services in the FA. Allegedly, the match fixing network was spread from the lowest league to the top division.
The latest arrests confirm that. Pralija used to be a sporting director of RNK Split in their furious rise from fourth division to the Europa League, where they clashed with Fulham at Craven Cottage. Prior to Pralija’s arrest USKOK caught Neven Šprajcer, who was a board member of NK Karlovac, the team which was dominant in the lower division before reaching the top.
However, the question is: are the smaller fish sacrificed for the bigger ones?
Croatian Football Federation (HNS) states - they don’t give a fuck. That is the literal quote by Vlatko Marković, the federation’s president. The leading man of HNS for the past 12 years is highly criticized in public for being just a puppet in Zdravko Mamić‘s hands. Mamić, who is the unofficial owner of Dinamo Zagreb, is the most powerful man in Croatian football.
He is the one who controls all the important sections of football in this country and his word, even though he is just a board member, is decisive, thanks to his lobbying.
Željko Jovanović, the minister of sport of the newly formed government, said in his first public address that Croatian football is a huge swamp and that it needs to be cleaned.
“If the leaders in HNS knew what was going on, than they are equally guilty. In the opposite case, if they were not aware, that means that they are simply incompetent and that they must leave. In any case, I expect them to quit”, said minister Jovanović.
Still, there are no official investigations against crucial people in Croatian football. HNS is cunningly silent. Or they just don’t give a fuck. Obviously, they feel invincible, as the true owners of football in Croatia, for now and for the future. That is why the next moves made by USKOK are the most important for the future of Croatian football - if those arrests are just THE beginning of a big action, than the future could be bright. On the other hand, if this is all there is to it, then it is just for appearance.
Sasa Ibrulj is a Bosnian football writer, and has contributed articles to The Blizzard, World Soccer and FourFourTwo. He is a fan of Velež Mostar, and can be found on Twitter here.