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'The Puppet Master' - why Croatia flare protesters hate one of Europe's most powerful men

9:00 AM GMT 21/06/2016
Croatia Crowd Trouble Group D Czech Republic Euro 2016
The actions of the "sports terrorists" against the Czech Republic were the result of a long-running feud with one of the most controversial figures in world football

GOAL PROFILE

There were only four minutes of the match remaining when Croatia fans launched their first flare onto the field. Another soon followed, then another and another, leaving the corner of the pitch closest to their supporters dusted by the glowing pyrotechnics. A firecracker went off right next to a member of security personnel tasked with clearing up their mess. It was chaos.

Chaos, though, is exactly what a band of supporters wished to cause in what is a long-running civil war with Zdravko Mamic, the vice president of the country’s football association but reckoned to be the most influential individual in Croatian sport. 

The 56-year-old, who once yielded great political strrength, does not cut a popular figure in the country and stands accused of abusing his authority for personal gain. His enemies, those supporters branded “sports terrorists” by head coach Ante Cacic, are moving to displace him and their actions culminated in the pre-planned disruption of the fixture against the Czech Republic, which ultimately finished 2-2.

Mamic was initially a member of Dinamo Zagreb’s notorious ultras group Bad Blue Boys and had the unusual occupation of selling Styrofoam seats in front of the Maksimir Stadium. When coach Miroslav Blazevic took charge in the 1980s he befriended the trainer and became trusted as an advisor. This was the foothold he required to climb the political ladder, ultimately becoming vice president of the club, Croatia’s most powerful.

The fan inside of him, though, has never escaped and it is still his burning ambition to be glorified by supporters – a status he is currently incredibly distant from.

He came to power in the aftermath of the late Franjo Tudjman’s reign, important context given he was a popular president who encouraged state sponsorship, re-signed cult hero Robert Prosinecki and moved to strengthen ties with the Croatia diaspora by adding Mark Viduka to the club’s ranks.

The beginning of the Mamic era was incredibly successful, though perhaps too so. As his influence increased, referees started to become fearful of making errors in matches against Dinamo, while the club’s youth academy monopolised talent from across the country and even beyond.

Great rivals Hajduk Split were frustrated by this dominance, and even more so when FC Lokomotiva were promoted to the top flight. They were effectively a Dinamo ‘B’ team, with up to 10 players loaned from the Zagreb club each season, but never challenged their parent side – losing 20 of their 21 league fixtures and drawing the other. As Hajduk raged, Mamic proved his business acumen by severing official contracts with the players, selling them to Lokomotiva and including buy-back options in the deals.

A decade ago, relations started to turn sour within Dinamo as he was accused by the ultras group of which he was once a member, of turning the capital side into his own club – a direct contrast to Tudjman before him. Instead, the fans hold the belief that the club belongs to the city.

Initially, the only protests against Mamic came purely in the form of chants, but as his authority has grown in the game, so too has the strength of feeling against him. Boycotts, protests and riots have all taken place in an attempt to overthrow a figure now known as ‘the Puppet Master’. 

He has earned this moniker over the years. While he has successfully managed to thus far stay on the correct side of the law, there is little doubt that many of his actions have been morally doubtful. 

Coaches at Dinamo found life particularly difficult under the larger-than-life figure. He would charge into the locker room and effectively take over the role, which led to him appointing his brother, Zoran, into the leading role. He will depart the club for Al Nassr, but is one of the longest-serving coaches in the modern era of the club.

Transfers, too, have been a major point of contention. Eduardo, the former Arsenal striker who started his career at Dinamo, is embroiled in a law suit against Mamic seeking to break a civil contract that means he will pay 10 per cent of his earnings to the Croat until the end of his career. 

“I helped Eduardo, paid for his surgery when he was 17 and about to be thrown out from Dinamo during his loan spell with Inter Zapresic. I paid for his wedding, I bought a house for his mother... That rude kid should have more respect! I made him famous, I enabled him to transfer to Arsenal and he gave me nothing!” Mamic seethed.

There are rumours in Croatia that other star names, who are represented by Mamic’s son, Mario, or close friend Nikky Vuksan, are tied to similar deals.

What cannot be denied is his ability to produce the unexpected. Press conferences that he holds are extremely popular throughout the Balkan region due to his tendency to produce remarkable soundbites. “Go to the club, smash the place, I will pay for the damage!” he once told his players.

Journalists have come under particular fire from him, with many of the phrases he has used too offensive to print. Many of his inflammatory comments have entered everyday language among the young.

His combustible nature has been displayed physically on a number of occasions, most notably when he was embroiled in a fight with a 75-year-old fan in the VIP box during a match in Split. And there was also an occasion when he tore off his shirt after Dinamo won a vital European match against Ajax, forcing him to make the journey home from the airport almost completely naked.

Mamic’s influence in the national association, which has caused such a continent-wide stir in recent times, has also been questionable. He climbed to the role of vice president before stepping down when it became illegal for officials under police investigation to be involved in the federation. Instead, he became an ‘advisor’, with reports suggesting that he now earns an even greater wage.

There is no-one of a Hajduk persuasion in the upper echelons of the FA to counter his power. 

 

But Dinamo legends have publicly hit out at him. Zvonimir Boban, a legend of the game in Croatia but also an outspoken figure, has said he will not have anything to do with the domestic game while Mamic is involved, while a slew of big names - Mario Stanic, Robert Prosinecki, Drazen Ladic, Igor Tudor - have replicated his words.

Politically, his position is being made increasingly uncomfortable. Since a left-wing orientated government took over the running of the country in 2012, he has been pressed over his irregularities and controversies, and the judges and politicians who were once his close allies are no longer in a position to defend him so readily. 

Additionally, UEFA rules governing transfers have squeezed his influence. No longer can young players be easily sold for giant fees. Robert Muric (Ajax) and Fran Brodic (Brugge) left for a relative pittance, and history has repeated itself as talented 1998 kids Josip Brekalo (Wolfsburg) and Branimir Kalaica (Benfica) have departed.

Perhaps the actions of the Croatia fans at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard are the fatal blow to Mamic’s grip on power, but given his propensity to remain one step ahead, don’t count on it.

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