Croatia’s Soccer Stars Should Be Heroes. Instead, They’re Hated.

A corruption scandal involving the country’s top club and the national team’s captain has enraged Croatian fans.

Croatia and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric appears in court to testify in a corruption trial in Osijek, Croatia, on June 13, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Croatia and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric appears in court to testify in a corruption trial in Osijek, Croatia, on June 13, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images) (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Of all the Croatians in the world to miss a penalty shot, it had to be Luka Modric. After a flagrant foul in the round of 16 game against Denmark on July 1, Modric stepped up for what should have been a match-winning spot kick with four minutes left on the clock in extra time. He missed. Usually, when a penalty is missed, devout fans feel frustration and then sympathy for the player who fluffed the kick. But Luka Modric is different.

As captain of the national team, Modric, whose day job is playing club soccer for Real Madrid, should be a hero at home. His miss aside, Croatia’s performance in Russia has given the team an opportunity to better its 1998 World Cup run, when the then-fledgling nation made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup in France, only to be defeated by the host nation and eventual champion. Twenty years after those heroics, when players such as Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, and Zvonimir Boban were hailed as national icons for putting Croatia on the world map, several of the current team’s stars — especially Modric — are loathed rather than loved back home.

The reason for fans’ ire is Zdravko Mamic, once one of the most powerful and colorful figures in Croatian sports. In June, Mamic was found guilty of fraud after a long case that hinged on the 2008 transfer of Modric from the local team Dinamo Zagreb to the British club Tottenham Hotspur and Dejan Lovren’s move from Dinamo to Olympique Lyonnais in France in 2010. Mamic was both chief executive of Dinamo Zagreb and an agent — a role laden with obvious conflicts of interest and many opportunities to siphon money from transfer deals.

The case against Mamic, led by the Croatian State Prosecutor’s Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime, claimed he made illegal personal profits on player transfers from Dinamo Zagreb. Dinamo is a fan-owned citizens’ association club — not a privately owned enterprise. Still, for a man in a position of power and influence, the scheme was simple: Mamic would get promising young Croatian players — including Modric and Lovren — to sign contracts that ultimately gave him 50 percent of a player’s earnings or contract bonuses over their careers. As the boss of Dinamo Zagreb, one of the most powerful clubs in Croatia, Mamic held most of the cards.

The court heard directly from Modric during the trial, where he told stories of going to a bank with Mamic’s son or brother to withdraw money from his own account and hand over cash that often totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. Croatians’ hostility toward Modric and Lovren, however, was not for being victims of the scheme but for backtracking on statements they made earlier in the case against Mamic, an individual widely loathed by soccer fans across the country.

During the televised trial, the judge presented Modric, a key witness, with an earlier statement that damned Mamic. Modric had initially claimed to prosecutors that a contract with Mamic had been backdated after he had joined Tottenham. Modric nervously updated his claim in front of the court in 2017: “I’ve never said… that it… that… that it was drawn up afterwards. I told you then that I couldn’t remember when it had been done.” Modric and Lovren, who is being investigated for giving a false statement, were seen as protecting a reviled and corrupt figure.

The outrage was swift. A hotel in Zadar where the Modric family lived as refugees in the 1990s was marked with graffiti: “Luka, you will remember this one day.” Fans of Hajduk Split, Dinamo’s fierce rivals, chanted anti-Modric slogans even though he had left Zagreb a decade before and was now playing for a team in another country. Missing the chance to nail Mamic — who represented the soccer establishment’s privilege and corruption to many Croatian fans — was simply too much.

Despite Modric’s backflip, Mamic was sentenced by the court to six and half years in jail for the scheme. For their respective roles, Mamic’s brother Zoran, a former Dinamo player and coach, received a five-year sentence, and Damir Vrbanovic, a former Dinamo and Croatian Football Federation executive, was given three years in jail. But Mamic didn’t hang around; he fled Croatia for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which does not have an extradition treaty with its neighbor, ahead of the verdict.

Mamic was a big fish whose influence should not be underestimated. As Dinamo Zagreb’s chief executive, he had direct ties with judges, politicians, media bosses, and police. Dinamo is so much a part of the establishment that at times it has served as a nationalistic focal point for many Croatians rather than a mere soccer team.

Following the unification of Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito after World War II, Dinamo’s games against the Belgrade teams Red Star and Partizan became an opportunity to protest what Croats saw as Serb domination of the country. Dinamo vs. Red Star matches were widely accepted as being the most volatile of all European rivalries, a roll call that includes Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Roma and Lazio in Italy, and the sectarian Glasgow Celtic and Rangers rivalry in Scotland.

On May 13, 1990, the Dinamo-Red Star rivalry spun out of control when fights between fans spilled onto the pitch. Dinamo star Zvonimir Boban fought back against police after he was hit by an officer wielding a truncheon. The kick he landed on a cop — at a time when police were seen as pro-Serbian — made him a bigger Croatian national hero than any goals he scored before or after.

In 1992, after declaring independence from Yugoslavia and fighting a bloody war against Serbs, Croatian nationalism was at its peak. President Franjo Tudjman decided Croatia’s most famous club side should change its name from Dinamo to HASK Gradjanski, an amalgamation of the names of two clubs that had joined to form Dinamo Zagreb back in 1945. Tudjman thought “Dinamo” reflected the Communist era and was keen to leave his personal imprint on the new nation’s flagship side.

HASK Gradjanski was granted unlimited support by Tudjman’s new government. His close friend Miroslav Blazevic — who would eventually lead Croatia to the 1998 World Cup semifinals — was installed as both president and coach of the club. The only problem was that the hardcore fans, many of whom had fought in the 1990 riot, considered the new name ludicrous. In 1993, the name was again changed to Croatia Zagreb. Tudjman’s motivation this time was simple: With the champions of Croatia eligible for European competitions, the club would serve an ambassadorial role in each country it played in. The name Croatia would be seen on televisions across Europe and around the world. It was, potentially, a savvy piece of national marketing, but in 2000, following Tudjman’s death, the club’s name reverted to Dinamo.

In recent years, the team has failed to shine on the European stage, but it is known for producing some of the best young players in Europe who go on to play for the biggest clubs, including Modric, Lovren, and Mario Mandzukic, the national team striker who plays for Juventus in Italy. All had contracts with Mamic.

There is, however, one star on the 2018 Croatian World Cup roster who has openly denounced Mamic’s corruption: Andrej Kramaric. Kramaric was a young player at Dinamo who refused to sign a contract with Mamic that would have bound him and his future earnings to the club president. In 2013, Kramaric went public to complain that he was being denied playing time. He was ostracized at Dinamo and left the club later that year. He played for several teams across Europe before finding a home with Hoffenheim in Germany and has now established himself as one of Croatia’s key players.

“The stories you hear are true,” Kramaric said of his experience with Mamic. “I came out of it with a smile on my face and made a success for myself. But, of course, it left a bitter taste. Dinamo was my dream ever since I was a kid.” Kramaric’s refusal to comply with Mamic’s demands and his decision to buck the establishment and carve out his own career free of obligations to the corrupt and powerful have endeared him to many fans as an example of everything a Croatia player should be. But he is an exception.

After Modric’s missed kick against Denmark, the game ended in a 1-1 tie and was decided by a penalty shootout. Kramaric smoothly scored his kick. Modric, with more steel than he showed in the courtroom, stepped up in front of a full stadium and millions of people watching on television around the world to right the wrong from 15 minutes earlier.

Denmark’s coach pointed out that taking a penalty in a high-stakes shootout can produce adrenaline levels similar to being in a war zone. This time, Modric scored. Croatian fans breathed out. He’d failed them earlier on the field and failed them before the law, but this time, at least, he’d done the job. “Can you imagine what would have happened had he not scored?” said Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s coach, after the game.

The fugitive Zdravko Mamic, watching on TV somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, likely had no doubt Modric would come through in the end. After all, the star player had delivered for Mamic when it mattered in court.

Matthew Hall writes about politics, sports, and culture for The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, and South China Morning Post. Twitter: @matthew_hall

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