Sunday, 30 June 2013

Dinamo Zagreb - A Story of Money, Power and Corruption

A club which wins their domestic League 15 times in 22 seasons, finishing 2nd on a further 3 occasions, along with 12 domestic cups would be famous throughout the continent, wouldn’t it?  After all, they’d have been in the Champions League for all those seasons and just think of the money.

When you add in some of the most famous Croatian players such as Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker, Dario Simic, Robert Prosinecki, Igor Biscan, Eduardo, Goran Vlaovic, Zoran Mamic, Vedran Corluka, Luka Modric and Niko Krancjar, then you’d expect the whole of Europe to know who Dinamo Zagreb is.  But they remain a mystery.  Why?


Average attendances are a puzzle too.  For a ground with a capacity of 35,000 their average attendance figures are poor.  In 2012-13 they fell below 3,000 (2,945).  Their nearest rivals and 2nd most successful club in Croatia, Hajduk Split, average 3 times more than that (9,206).  Even HNK Rijeka, who has never won the Croatian title, played to more fans (3,912) last season.  The attendances at Maksimir Stadium have been falling steadily after they were up at 5,700 in 2009. Back in 2006 this figure was up at 11,156 when Dinamo ended a run of 1 title win in the previous 5 and began their incredible run of consecutive wins which currently stands at 8.  In fact, the most popular club in Zagreb does not play football.


The club has a vociferous supporter base of ultras, known as Bad Blue Boys (BBB), who have long been associated with extreme nationalist causes.  An infamous riot between them and Red Star Belgrade supporters in the summer of 1990 is seen as one of the precursors to the ethnic Balkan wars which erupted a year later.  The BBB were originally founded in 1986 and named after the 1983 Sean Penn film, Bad Boys.

Executive Director

Another reason is their self-appointed Executive Director, Zdravko Mamic.  Mamic is the most powerful man in Croatian football.  He controls the most important sections of football in the county and his word is decisive.  He is a board member of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) and few will challenge his point of view.  He courts controversy at every turn.  He has had various run-ins with journalists, officials and even police, often threatening violent behaviour or making vulgar comments about them and their profession.

In March 2013 he faced the threat of jail after a racist rant against Croatia’s Minister of Sport and Education, Zelko Jovanovic.  Talking on a radio station Mamic, claimed Jovanovic was “A Croat-hater.  When you look at him, you don’t see a smile but fangs with blood coming out of them”.  He went onto say, “Jovanovic hates everything Croatian, a Serb cannot lead the country’s most important department.  He’s an insult to Croatian brain.”

Mamic’s comments even drew a rebuke from President Ivo Jospipovic who claimed the words were “offensive and maliciously aggressive towards the Serbian minority and Serbs as people.” 

The penalty for such an offence in Croatia is 3 years in prison.  Whether Mamic suffers such punishment is up for debate, but in his defence he has been singled out by Jovanovic who seems to be against anything Croatian, which is not a good position to be when you are part of the Croatian government.  Reuters announced on 20th June 2013 that “Croatia’s state prosecutors have indicted Zdravko Mamic for inciting racial hatred towards ethnic Serbs.”

Originally, Mamic claimed to have started out as one of the leaders of the BBB, but it has since been discovered he made that up.  He made his millions in the 90’s during the war in the Balkans.  Like Abramovich, no one really knows how he made his money but suggestions are that it was not through entirely lawful and ethical means.  He had a brief spell as Dinamo President, which was not particularly successful and then he went into sports management and became an agent.  The contracts he had with players were also highly dubious with many stories of charging parents vast amounts of money to take on their kids.

During the 90’s Dinamo was backed by ruling politicians and, again, there are many rumours of titles being fixed.  They also were alleged to be funded by the Treasury  The club was also in a battle with its own fans over the name.  After independence the club was known as Croatia Zagreb, thought to promote the benefits for the country, as it was thought the name ‘Dinamo’ was linked to communism.  Then came a change of government and Dinamo were now out of favour and their backing had disappeared.  This was Mamic’s way back into the club.  Gradually the true financial position of the club was revealed and they were shown to be crippled by huge debts.  But Mamic had a plan.

He formed a new club, transferred all the players and trophies and left all the debts with the old club, which subsequently went bust.  The ‘old’ Dinamo still owed money to some ex-players money, including Prosinecki, who now could not chase the ‘new’ Dinamo as they had never actually played for that club.

Having cleared the slate, Mamic then used his political connections to ensure the clubs was continually funded from taxpayers money, and thereby ensuring their continued domestic success to the detriment of the rest of the Croatian League.  It is interesting to note how FIFA bans countries where governments have interfered with the running of the game, yet Croatia seems able to continue.

In 2011 there was a scandal when the club invested in new seats paid for with taxpayers money.  It was then discovered the club had paid 3-4 times more than they needed for the seats and they bought them from a company whose owner is the wife of one of the club’s directors.  When the fans challenged the club about it, Mamic’s response, in no uncertain terms, was simply to tell the fans where to go.


Most of the club’s players have the same agent – Mamic’s son, Mario.  When Mamic took over he forced all the players to ditch their agents and join him, signing one of his contracts which signed away 25% of their salary for the rest of their career.  Those players who wouldn’t sign, were sold.  Niko Kranjcar, for example, went from Dinamo to Hajduk in 2005.  Why?  Because he wouldn’t switch agents or contracts.


Once all the finest Croatian talent was signed up by Mamic, he then set about selling.  Corluka left for Manchester City (£11.4m), Luka Modric for Tottenham (£18m), and Eduardo to Arsenal (£11.8m).  But many fans have questioned where the money has gone, as there’s little evidence it has gone back into the club.  This obviously brought Mamic a lot of money which in turn, can buy you a lot of influence.  The suggestion is that Mamic not only bought more power in Croatia but, more importantly, other clubs within the League became dependent on him as he would often buy one of their players and loan them back.  The Croatian League is not necessarily a wealthy one so one rich man can often be a magnet for others.  The influence Mamic bought within Croatian football was to expand his reach inside HNS, and enable him to have control over who is in the key positions within the organisation.

In 2009, Eduardo took Mamic to court to try and get out of his ‘lifetime’ contract with Mamic.  His lawyer claimed his contract should only be based on FIFA’s own rules, resulting in a 6% fee for his agent, whereas Mamic was creaming off 20% of his total income, including bonuses and advertising revenue.

Further evidence of Mamic’s influence is over the national team.  Mamic was constantly at odds with Slavan Bilic, who wouldn’t always pick Mamic’s players.  But Bilic had some decent results to back him up and so he prevailed.  But when Bilic left for Russia, Mamic saw his opportunity and installed Igor Stimac.  Stimac was a surprise choice, with no real experience or credentials and a man who Mamic had sacked when Dinamo manager in 2010.  But he was the choice this time as he was seen as someone who could be ‘handled’ by Mamic.  Interesting to note also that HNS announced a new president, Davor Suker, another Mamic choice.

One of Stimac’s first changes was to bring in Dinamo striker, Sammir for his first squad.  Sammir is a player Mamic bought for a lot of money from Brazil in 2007.  But Sammir has been inconsistent on the pitch, and hardly out of the tabloids off it.  Realising he needed to maintain the player’s value, Mamic has engineered his inclusion in the national team.  Bilic would never pick him, but Stimac has, almost immediately.  Coincidence?

Bribery and Corruption

Croatian football has also been rocked by recent accusations of match-fixing.  In July 2010 21 people were arrested on suspicion of match fixing.  2011 saw 15 players convicted.  It all unravelled when Hajduk Split President, Hrvoje Males, was used to create a sting to bribe Zeljko Siric, a former international referee and vice President of Croatian FA, and Stjepan Djedovic, the head of referees.  Siric and Djedovic took the bait and were duly sent to prison.  But whether the authorities are taking it seriously is a matter of debate as the Croatian Football Federation President was quoted as saying he couldn’t give a stuff about it.  When Jovanovic was asked about the situation he said

“Croatian football is a huge swamp and it needs to be cleaned.  If the leaders of the Football Federation knew what was going on then they are equally as guilty.  If they didn’t know then they are incompetent.  Either way, I expect them to leave.”

Hence the animosity from Mamic.

But since then, Croatian football believes it has been through the worst and the incidences of match-fixing and bribery have gone.  Whether it brings back the public remains to be seen.


What we have here is a club financed by the state (in a country about to become an EU member), meaning an almost unlimited supply of money, which gives them an unfair advantage over the rest of their league.  They buy players from other clubs in the league simply so those clubs become dependent on that source of income.  They then pay over the odds for goods and services from companies owned, directly or indirectly, by members of the club’s board.  They have a powerfully unhealthy influence on both the football federation and now, national team selection.

This is the sort of corruption which has been going on in China for many years, not necessarily in football, but in their reference to state control of society.

Of course all of this is circumstantial and little may be proved.  What tends to happen in circles where money buys power, it can also buy you fear and ultimately, silence.  One could argue Italy has suffered from symptoms such as this for years and has yet to fully eradicate it completely from its football culture.

But what is undeniable is that it is killing Croatian football, both for the players and, more importantly for the public.  When you’re funded by the state you care little for the opinion of the supporters, as they are paying you indirectly regardless of how much they protest.  It has been suggested Dinamo’s officials are unconcerned about the poor attendances at the Maksimir, preferring a smaller, less critical crowd, rather than spend 90 minutes being shouted at.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Is This The Most Boring League in Europe?

It is without doubt the Champions League has made an enormous difference to domestic leagues around Europe, mainly down to the disproportionate share of the prize money.   But there is one league in Europe which seems to be the hardest to win for any club apart from one.

The Croatian League (The Prva HNL)was formed in 1991 after the break-up of the Yugoslavian League.  22 seasons have been played out with just 3 different clubs lifting the title.  That might not seem too odd, especially when you consider countries such as Netherlands, Turkey and Portugal having a similar record.  But dig deeper and you find that one of those three, NK Zagreb, has only won the title once.  The 2nd best record is held by Hajduk Split with 6 wins.

Dinamo Zagreb has just won the Croatian League for an incredible 8th successive season and for an amazing 15th time out of 22 seasons.  They missed out on the League and Cup double this season, which they have achieved 5 times in the last 6 years and a total of 9 times since 1992.

NK Zagreb has just been relegated which means of the clubs who will compete in theHNL in 2013-14, only 2 have ever won the title.  The Croatian League has now made the decision to reduce their numbers in the HNL to just 10.  This would seem to provide Dinamo Zagreb with less competition than ever.

Dinamo Zagreb were named Croatia Zagreb in 1993 in a move seen as largely political to acknowledge a newly independent Croatia.  But the supporters were never comfortable with this and the name was changed back in 2000.  As Croatia Zagreb they won 5 League titles, including a run of 4 successive from 1996-1999 as they also picked up 3 League and Cup doubles.

The dominance of Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split is such that these two have filled the top 2 places in the HNL for 14 seasons.  Hajduk must be the most prolific ‘bridesmaids’ in Europe with an amazing 12 2nd places to their name.

This season Lokomotiva finished 2nd, the highest position in their history.  They became only the 7th different club to finish in the top 2 since 1992.  Lokomotiva won three consecutive promotions between 2007-09, rising from the fourth level of Croatian football to the top.  Their achievement in reaching 2nd place last season is less impressive when you find out they have been Dinamo Zagreb’s ‘farm’ team.

So basically, Dinamo Zagreb has won the last 8 league titles and now their ‘B’ side has just finished 2nd as well.  Mind you, the gap between the two this season was a massive 20pts from 33 games.

Attendances may point to the public becoming disillusioned with the lack of competition too.  Average attendances fell below 2,000 in 2011 for the first time since the Croatian League started, and fell further the year after, but have since recovered slightly yet still below 2,500.  Remarkably, for a club who has won so many titles, Dinamo Zagreb only pack in around 3,000 spectators, though this seasons’s average was just below that figure, compared with nearly 6,000 in 2009.

Scottish supporters might argue the SPL is equally as uncompetitive with only Rangers or Celtic winning the title over the same period, 1992-2013 and only 4 clubs, other than the Old Firm, have finished 2nd.  But up until last season at least either club had the chance to win the title, rather than one club dominating.
If you’re playing Football Manager and you want a challenge, why not try and take one of the other clubs to the title.  If you can do that then you might just be achieving the impossible in European league terms.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Week's a Long Time in Football


Newcomers Ludogorets had won the title at their first season in the Premier League, having won the Second Division the year before.  They won the cup too, to complete an amazing season for them.  Many were doubtful of their ability to replicate this performance 12 months on but they were involved again in the race for the title.

2011-12 they had won the title by 1 point from CSKA Sofia when it went down to the last game.  This time they were battling with Levski Sofia.  Levski is the 2nd most successful club in Bulgarian football with 26 titles to their name, but none in the last 3 seasons.  The destination of the title has evaded Sofia since 2009 and the capital city was desperate to wrestle control back.

We join the season in the final week.  The last 3 games of the season will be played on Saturday, Wednesday and Saturday.  Ludogorets and Levski were the runaway leaders and just to add some spice to the mix, the two were to meet each other in their third to last game.

Levski are unbeaten in their last 10 in the league, conceding just 5 goals during that time and never more than one in a match.  For Ludogorets their run was more impressive.  You need to go back to October 2012 for their last defeat in the league when they lost 0-1 at Chernomorets.  A run of 17 games unbeaten, conceding just 7 and also never more than 1 in a game.  That game was still their only defeat of the season.

So the scene was set at the Georgi Asparuhov Stadium in Sofia on 18th May 2013 where Levski Sofia, in 2nd, met leaders Ludogorets.  2pts separate the two clubs.

When the two met in Razgrad back in November, two goals from Genchev gave Ludogorets a 2-1 win.

This time the game was goalless going into injury time.  Levski had managed to spring the offside trap several times, but found Stoyanov in the visitors goal, difficult to beat.  There were chances at both ends as the nerves were beginning to show.  81 minutes in and Ivaylo Petev, Ludogorets coach, made a substitution which turned the game, but not in the way he planned.  He took off his Brazilian striker, Marcelinho and brought on Mitchell Burgzorg a Dutch midfielder.  Just after the change, Ludogorets went down to 10 men as Slovakian defender Lubomir Guldan was sent off.  4 minutes into injury time and Levski’s 35-year old midfielder, Stanislav Angelov, hit a left-foot shot from about 25 yards out.  It looked to be going wide of the keeper’s left-hand post when Burgzorg stuck out a boot and it deflected off him into the net, leaving the keeper stranded.  There was barely enough time for the re-start and Levski had pulled off a dramatic win with the Ludogorets players left crestfallen as the enormity of what had just happened, began to sink in.

Advantage Levski

For the penultimate match, Ludogorets were to play their final home match of the season.  They were up against Botev Plovdiv who were chasing a Europa League spot.  This was a much harder game in prospect than Levski who travelled to bottom of the table, Etar.  Ludogorets had just thrashed them 5-1 and when Levski hosted Etar back in November, they won 7-1.

Since Ludogorets visited there, Etar Tarnovo had gone bust.  The Bulgarian FA were now awarding each game to their opponents, 3-0, so Levski picked up 3pts without getting their boots muddy. 

Ludogorets got off to a good start when Igor Stoyanov put them ahead after 8 minutes.  Stoyanov was top scorer last season with 16 but he was down on that tally this time round.  20 minutes in and Stoyanov doubled his, and his team’s total and Ludogorets won 2-0.

Going into the final round and 1pt separated the two teams

Saturday 25th May 2013 and the final day of the season.  Levski were at home to neighbours, Slavia.  Unbeaten at home all season they were looking at putting on a show for their supporters, against Slavia whose days of dominance in Bulgarian football ended in the mid-40’s, and were sitting mid-table in 8th.

Ludogorets were visiting Montana, a club already relegated.  Montana had recently beaten Minyor Pernik recently which ended a run of 9 straight defeats.  

Dyakov gave Ludogorets the lead on the half-hour.  But almost immediately DeCarvalho put Levski in front against Slavia as he pounced on some indecision in the visitors defence.  All the while Levski were winning they were going to be crowned Champions.

68 minutes in and Aleksandrov doubled Ludogorets lead as they’re now 2-0 up.  The whole season then swung in the 76th minute of both games.  Aleksandrov got his 2nd of the game and Ludogorets 3rd.  Unbelievably, at exactly the same point in Sofia, Slavia have a free-kick which is floated into the box and Vezalov inexplicablyput through his own net and Slavia had equalised.  The Levski fans and coaching staff then had to endure an agonising last quarter of an hour praying the home side would score again.  They didn’t, and Ludogorets were Champions.

The thing which stands out to me from these clips is the different atmosphere at both games.  At Levski there’s a great atmosphere, and one you’d expect from a local derby with the home side expecting to pick up the league title.  At Montana there seems to be more people in the commentary box than in the stands!

This was a bitter ‘double’ blow for Levski who had been beaten on penalties in the Bulgarian Cup too.

An incredible end to a season 

New Kids on the Eastern Bloc - The Finale

I wrote an article back in March about Ludogorets, a team from the Bulgarian league.  Ludogorets had gained promotion last season to the Premier Division for the first time in their history.

Bulgaria’s top division has been going for 88 years.  57 of those years, the title has been won by either CSKA Sofia (31) or Levski Sofia (26).  With Slavia Sofia also winning 7 titles and Lokomotiv Sofia, 4, clubs from Sofia have won 68 of the 88 league titles.  In the 10 seasons between 2000 and 2009, CSKA and Levski won every title between them, bar one when Lokomotiv Plovdiv won in 2004.

By the mid-season break Ludogorets were top of the league.  Champions League money has made it more difficult for clubs in Europe to come up and win a title at their first attempt, and so this stood out as something to keep an eye.  So I did.

CSKA Sofia were keen to win their title back after Lovech had won the last 2.  They lost their first game back after the winter break but then went on a run of 9 straight wins.

Ludogorets had kept their form going as they won 4 straight matches after the break.  But then it looked as if the wheels had started to come off, as they then lost 3 matches on the trot.  Up to that point they had only been beaten once, when they visited the champions, so many considered this as far as they could go.  They finally ended the run with a 1-0 win away to Levski Sofia, but by this time CSKA were 6pts clear and looking unshakeable.

Both sides won their next 3 matches, and the goals were flowing too. Ludogorets thumped Minyor Pernik, 7-0.  A week later Lovech, the champions, stole a point as they held Ludogorets to a 1-1 draw.  It looked like the new kids were getting a lesson from the big boys.  On the same day, CSKA beat Cherno More, 4-1.  The lead was now 8pts and there were just 5 games to go.

Ludogorets bounced back the following week, travelling to Montana and winning 4-1.  Their joy was extended when they heard how CSKA got on.  A run of 9 successive victories had just come to an end for the league leaders as they went down 0-1 to Levski Sofia.  The lead was back down to 5pts with 4 games left.

CSKA then won comfortably the following week and Ludogorets also won away to Lokomotiv Sofia.  5pts was the gap, just 3 games to go.

CSKA travelled to Minyor Pernik, who Ludogorets had thumped 7 goals past.  Two second half goals gave the home side an unlikely win.  Ludogorets were at home to Chernomorets and went a goal down early on, but 2 goals from Stoyanov and 1 from Gargorov gave them an easy 3-1 win.

The gap was now down to just 2pts with 2 games to go.

The penultimate round of matches saw Ludogorets travel to relegated Kaliakra.  Stoyanov and Gargorov were again on the scoresheet as they won 4-0.  They had done all they could, and were hoping CSKA would come unstuck against the champions, Lovech.  But their hopes were dashed as Junior Moraes scored a hat-trick and CSKA won 4-1.

Ludogorets needed to win their final game and needed CSKA to lose.  Remarkably for the story writers, the final game of the season was these two was against each other!

Ludogorets were at home.  The first meeting between the two had seen CSKA take a 2-0 lead with both goals from Junior Moraes, but then Juninho and Stoyanov scored in the last 4 minutes to grab a point.  If Ludogorets could win the title, that point could be the deciding factor.

23rd March 2012 and the stage was set for the ultimate shootout.  A draw would suit CSKA but they had just lost their last 2 away games.  If Ludogorets could win they would pick up their first Bulgarian title at their first attempt.  6000 fans packed the Ludogorets Arena in Razgrad to cheer their team on.  19 minutes in and 30 year midfielder, Miroslav Ivanov put the home side in front.  The place went wild and CSKA’s recent vulnerability looked to be their undoing.

It was a feisty game with 5 players picking up yellow cards in the first half alone.  Right on half-time, CSKA were down to 10-men as Granchov was sent-off.  1-0 was the score at half-time and Ludogorets were 45 minutes away from making history.  On the hour, Svetoslav Dyakov picked up his 2nd yellow card and received his marching orders too and so both teams were down to 10-men.

In the end, Dyakov’s goal proved to be the only one and, unbelievably, Ludogorets had won the Bulgarian title in their very first season in the top flight.  Imagine a club like Doncaster Rovers going up from the Championship and winning the title first time round, against clubs who share the honours season after season, and then you have some idea of the magnitude of their achievement.

Some European leagues only share the title between a couple of clubs and Bulgaria is no exception.  CSKA threw away the title by losing 3 of their last 5 matches, but Ludogorets won 8 out of their last 9 matches including every one of their last 5.

The title represented a phenomenal season for Ludogorets who two weeks previously had won the Bulgarian Cup.  So, not only had they won major honours for the first time, but they had won the League and Cup double.

Their success was based on a classic combination of scoring goals and not conceding.  They scored 12 more goals than any other team and conceded just 16.  Stoyanov was top scorer with 16 goals, with Gargorov hitting 13.  Whether they can replicate this success next season, remains to be seen but they will certainly enjoy their Champions League experience.

A truly remarkable season.