Considering the cold fact that Mario Cizmek is set to spend a minimum of 10 months in prison, for accepting money to fix six Croatian first division matches in the 2009/2010 season, the 38-year old is surprisingly calm about what awaits him.
He spoke frankly about his criminal activity at the last ‘Play The Game’ conference in Denmark, an international event that tackles the uncomfortable issues of ethics and good governance in sport.
“I have decided not to think too much about having to serve the sentence. It is better to confront the fact when the time comes,” Cizmek told me in the lobby of the Helnan Marselis hotel, in the city of Aarhus.
Having spent over a month in custody, after being arrested at his Zagreb home by police on June 8, 2010, Cizmek is yet to get over that experience.
“I had to prevent my daughters from seeing me get arrested. That was not something I wanted them to witness. I kept them in another room, whilst I had to call my (ex) wife, to come back to the house, in order to look after them, whilst I was taken away.
“I was kept in prison with all kinds of characters… Murderers, rapists, really scary guys… It was a horrible, horrible time… Before I got caught up in this mess, my biggest offence would have been a speeding ticket,” he says.
The trouble for Cizmek, an ex-player of FC Zagreb, with career stints in Israel, Iceland and Bosnia, began when FC Croatia Sesvete, his last club, left him, as well as his colleagues, in dire financial straits.
“Everything was fine with our salaries until April 2008, when they became irregular.
“It got to a point where my colleagues and I did not receive salaries for over one year. I was really in a very bad situation, as my bills and taxes were piling up and I did not know what to do.”
Desperate and left with nowhere to turn, Vinod Saka, the former Croatia Zagreb assistant coach, offered to ‘help’ Cizmek and his colleagues out of their financial problems.
“This, of course, was the biggest mistake of my life,” Cizmek says, with a tinge of dark humour.
“When we agreed to get involved in fixing matches, our club was already going to be relegated to the second division, so we felt that we had nothing to lose. At least, we could earn some money and make our lives a bit better.”
According to the trial in Zagreb, which found Cizmek and 14 other people guilty (including Saka) of match-fixing, he and a fellow player met with Saka and his ‘associate’ on March 25, 2010, where they struck a deal to fix the first game, against FC Zadar, which was played two days later.
Cizmek received €3,000 for fixing the match, which Zadar ‘won’ 2-1.
“I had a horrible, sick feeling when I took the money, because I knew that what I was doing was absolutely wrong.
“But I had no money for food or my other basic needs and I was married with children. I had nowhere to turn to, so it looked like the best solution available to me at the time.”
Whilst Cizmek reportedly earned €18,000 from his six-match involvement with the fixers, with some of his colleagues being paid more, he claimed the seriousness of their actions weighed heavily on them and they subsequently refused to get involved in a 7th fix, against FC Lokomotiva.
The match-fixers did not allow their change of heart to bother them, as they managed, with the collusion of a different set of people, to fix the remaining matches of the 2009 season.
But the day of reckoning was only a matter of time, as the police caught wind of what had happened, which led to the subsequent arrest of Cizmek and his colleagues.
“While I accept that what I did was wrong and I deserve to be punished for what I did, I am very bitter that a lot of people, who did worse things than me in similar cases, got off with very light sentences.
“In my case, not only have I been banned for life, from all football activities, by the Croatian Federation, I was tried in court and sentenced to prison.
“This is not happening in other parts of Europe, where similar things have taken place. I have to admit that I am quite bitter about that. There should be a uniform punishment for everyone involved in this crime.”
Cizmek insists that he would never have been involved in match-fixing, had he been paid his wages.
Sesvete were declared bankrupt in 2012, which left the debt to Cizmek and his colleagues unsettled.
That leaves many unanswered questions for the Croatian FA to answer, as it failed to protect the employment rights of the unpaid players, leaving them vulnerable to the criminals determined to bring the game to its knees.
With football’s door firmly shut to Cizmek, he now works on his family’s organic farm, where they make jam and berry tea, with only the prospect of jail in the horizon, as he awaits the final verdict from an appeal court.
“Football has been my life for 25 years. It is all that I know and I did not have an education… I hope that at some point, I will be allowed to return to the game. But I know this is a very distant prospect at the moment.”
Not surprisingly, Cizmek, now divorced – a fact not unconnected to the scandal – rings a loud bell of warning to other players tempted to walk down the match-fixing path.
“Don’t do it. It is just not worth it. No matter how difficult one’s problems are, there is always a better way to solve them.”
It is right – even though morally convenient – for some people to take the inflexible position that Cizmek made a rod for his own back, by accepting to sup with the devil.
But how many of us, put in the harsh circumstances that Cizmek found himself in, can say, for certain, that we would not sacrifice, on the altar of financial desperation, our high-minded principles and avoid the path now leading him to prison?
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.