Last month a letter was sent from the desk of Dimitar Zisovski at the picturesque Udarna Brigada in central Skopje to Zurich that could have far-reaching consequences for global soccer and its vast web of gambling markets.
The letter, marked with the official stamp of the Football Federation of FYR Macedonia and signed off by General Secretary Zisovski, winged its way from the Balkans to FIFA headquarters for the urgent attention of Sep Blatter, and carried a terse request that if granted could set a ground-breaking precedent for the way the game interacts with the global betting pool.
Zisovski and his federation want all fixtures involving clubs from Macedonia’s domestic First League removed from the gambling circuit by prohibiting betting companies from accepting bids on them. Given the exponential growth of the market in recent years the notion sounds as fanciful as it would be unenforceable, but so far there has been no word from Zurich regarding a response.
Reaction at home on the other hand has been vocal. Critics fear that the Federation’s gimmicky attempt to tackle the issue of match-rigging will draw unwanted attention to the depth of problem being faced by the domestic game as it marks twenty years of independence from the federal Yugoslavian football authorities. Whatever the outcome, the bid is just the latest pothole on what has been a bumpy ride for the young republic in its two-decade long battle against corruption and collapse.
In August 2004 KF Pobeda club president Aleksandar Zabrcanec stood in the dressing room at Champions League qualifying round opponents Pyunik of Yerevan at half time and addressed his players. “Finish the business or they will kill me. They will burn my house.”
As a half time rallying cry it is potentially inspiring, if a little blood-curdling, but the business to which Zabrcanec referred was a deal he had struck on the players’ behalf with a betting syndicate that would throw the game in favour of Pyunik. An insipid second half performance from Pobeda followed, gifting their opponents a 1-1 draw, and Zabrcanec’s side exited the competition meekly 3-1 to the technically and tactically limited Armenian champions.
When the facts came to light five years later in 2009 UEFA, backed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, acted swiftly. Zabrcanec was summarily banned from football activities for life but the most severe repercussions were borne by Pobeda, whose eight-year European ban and subsequent disgrace marked the beginning of a demise that would see them fall from the league summit into oblivion.
The facts surrounding the death of Pobeda are shrouded in mystery. During the three week window in April and May 2010 in which the club were expelled from the First League and dissolved, barely 12 months after the CAS had imposed its ruling, the FFM imposed a media blackout, with the Federation’s official online news service going dead and failing to provide coverage of the final four rounds of fixtures as FK Renova cantered to their maiden league title.
The Federation re-opened its channels shortly afterwards with the announcement that there would be no relegation to the Second League that season following Pobeda’s expulsion, accompanied by a dossier for lisencing its clubs to ensure there would be “no team quitting in the middle of the season” in future. It isn’t clear whether Pobeda jumped or they were pushed. But it is difficult to shake the feeling that the seeds of the club’s collapse weren’t sewn by Zabrcanec in that dressing room in Yerevan.
Yet the fortunes of Macedonian football continue to swing to and fro. Pobeda re-grouped, reformed and were reborn in the regional third tier of the league system in time for the 2010-11 season, taking the name Viktorija in homage to Macedonia’s Latin past and a time when a coherent sense of nationhood pervaded. But life in the modern day republic is fractious. The country is still to truly find its feet economically after going solo following the break-up of Yugoslavia and the government remains at loggerheads with Greece over their claim to the ancient name of Macedonia, with Athens accusing Skopje of making irredentist overtures towards restoring the borders of the ancient kingdom at the expense of Greek territory. Meanwhile, Pobeda 2.0 have quietly stabilised and moved into the national Second League – a far cry from the side that twice lifted the title in the 00’s, but a defiant answer to the crisis years that followed.
The focus now for the FFM is on protecting its reputation abroad. Accusations of match-rigging have spread from the domestic game to the international scene and twice in the last two years the Federation have had to fend off accusations relating to international friendlies involving their team, first in March 2012 when minnows Luxembourg pulled off a surprise 2-1 win and again earlier this year when a cable released by Wikileaks cast doubt on the integrity of a defeat to Canada in 2009.
This, together with an undercurrent of corruption at home that has persisted since the Pobeda collapse, all contributed to international sports agency Sports Radar reporting this year that Macedonia placed seventh of the 54 UEFA nations as regards match-fixing in their national game, with 34 suspected incidents over a three-year period. It’s small wonder that Zisovski approached FIFA with such a desperate plea.
Some at home have criticised the Federation for making an empty gesture that shows them to be an organisation sorely lacking in ideas, when what is needed is creative decision making that tackles the problem at source.
“I think that this is the wrong decision and an absurd one” bemoaned sports analyst Reshat Ibrahim. “The Macedonian Football Federation can only damage the image of the National League in the international arena through this decision.”
Ibrahim’s verdict reflects the likely reality that Blatter won’t entertain the idea of a blanket ban on Macedonian football betting, certainly in a month when the FIFA boss announced plans to stand for a fifth term and must be seen more than ever to be the arch-propagator of the continued commodification of the global soccer brand.
If Macedonia is to conquer its demons it is likely to have to do so without concessions from the FIFA juggernaut.
By Robert O’Connor