- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 13, 2013

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.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.

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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.

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Story Continues →