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On the first Monday of this month, Goran Mijatovic left his flat in a suburb of Belgrade, heading back to the prison from which he was on weekend release. As he and his bodyguard approached his car, a bomb hidden in a stolen Audi 80 parked next to it was remotely detonated. Both men were killed in the blast, making Mijatovic, who was president of FK Bezanija, the ninth Serbian football club director to be assassinated in the past 10 years.

Mijatovic was not a man who exactly steered clear of trouble. He was first arrested in 1998 when he turned up at a post office to collect a parcel containing 3.8kg of cocaine. He was arrested again in 2000 over the the attempted murder of the Serb nationalist politician Vuk Draskovic and then once more in 2003 in connection with the assassination of the prime minister Zoran Djindjic. He was charged with another murder, but never tried for it, before finally, in June this year, being sentenced to 10 months for extortion.

No motive has yet been established for his murder – or, indeed, for that of any of the other club presidents – but few would doubt the involvement of organised crime. Mafia influence over Serbian football might not have begun with the warlord Arkan but he was certainly the highest-profile criminal figure to take an interest in football, taking charge of second division Obilic in 1996. Two years later, they were league champions. A rags-to-riches fairy-tale? Hardly. Referees arriving at their stadium would be greeted by heavies in fatigues, opposing players would mysteriously withdraw hours before matches and there were rumours that sedative gases were pumped into the away changing-room before kick-off. That may sound implausible but the threat was taken seriously that Red Star chose to change in the car park. Even if there were no gas, there was always the possibility that Arkan may pay a visit to the away dressing-room at half-time. On one occasion, a common tale has it, he threatened to shoot an opposing centre-forward in the knee if he scored in the second half.

Arkan was killed in January 2000, shot 38 times in the chest as he sat drinking coffee outside the Intercontinental Hotel but, if anything, that simply opened the doors for increasing numbers of criminal elements to involve themselves in football, particularly as private contracts became commonplace. For Serbian clubs, the realisation that there were businessmen prepared to pay their players’ wages initially came as a blessing. Everybody seemed to benefit. Clubs, who in effect leased the players, were relieved of their greatest financial burden, players were paid more and young talent stayed in the country longer before moving abroad, raising the standard of the league. The only problem was that the businessmen’s interests were not necessarily the same as those of the clubs.

“I was a member of the youth squad at Partizan. I knew that with that generation of players I had next to no chance of making it there, so I signed a private contract to find a club somewhere else,” one player explained. Understandably, he insisted on anonymity. “My new manager, a respectable businessman, arranged for me to move to a smaller club but soon he had a disagreement with club officials and he gave up on me.

“A powerful local figure picked up my contract from him. Then it became messy. He first arranged for me to be loaned to a minor-league team. He just told me over the phone that I had to pack my things and go 200km from Belgrade the next morning. I was to play 12 games and then return to my club. The two best players from that team went the other way. I was their great hope in their fight for survival.

“I played one game, scored twice and then my manager called and told me that I had to get injured. I tried to tell him I was doing all right but he just said I had to think of a way to get on the injury list or he would put me on it. What could I have done? I faked stomach troubles and got myself off the team. They lost three consecutive games and became certain to be relegated.”

Another, a goalkeeper, had impressed during a loan spell at a second-division club when his manager called him with specific instructions. “I had to concede four goals in a game that had no meaning for the other club but was very important to us,” he said. “Those three points could have proved decisive in the race for promotion to the first division. I objected and because he was my father’s friend I was pretty sure that nothing bad would happen. The day before the game, he called me to return to Belgrade in order to discuss my decision.

“I went to the house where he had told me to meet him. He was not there but there were four men who told me they were his friends and that he would arrive shortly. I was kept there for two days but my manager never showed up. I missed the game, which we lost 4-1. When I returned to the club, no one asked where I had been. Everybody acted as if nothing had happened. My manager called me the day after and told me that the next time I had better do what he asked voluntarily. I really wanted to get back to Belgrade and play in the big league so I obeyed. During the next season, he asked similar favours from me several times.”

Match-fixing, though, is only part of it. The incidents just cited both took place after Arkan’s death but, possibly because it is actually quite difficult to let in four goals and making it look natural, it seems to be on the decline. These days the mafia sees football rather as a useful laundry. The investigative journalist Aleksandra Adzic claims to know of a criminal group based in Novi Beograd that launders money through investments in architecture, bookmaking and supporting young footballers. This year, Adzic says, the group made €3m from the sale of one young player.

Her allegations are confirmed by police. “Organised crime has been in football for 10 years,” a senior source said. “They recruit young players and arrange for them to be transferred to a better club. Because the clubs haven’t enough money to pay for the players, criminals give them, say €200,000 that comes from the drugs business. But they have a contract certified by law that they have to pay that back and give the criminals 20 per cent of their transfer fee. It is not uncommon that players after a few years move abroad for a few million but then the money is clean and there is nothing we can do because everything is certified and looks legal.”

It is a bleak picture and there seems little prospect of it improving any time soon.

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