Dinamo Zagreb’s Zoran Mamic, unbeaten in eight games, is one of the most successful managers in this season’s Europa League. His side won a difficult group with CSKA Moscow, Feyenoord and Wolfsberger, conceding only one goal on the way, then eliminated Krasnodar in the round of 32 last month, winning the home and away legs.
Now the Croatian champions face Tottenham in the first leg of the round of 16 on Thursday and the general feeling at home is they might stand a chance. They have a host of in-form players – such as Mislav Orsic, Bruno Petkovic and Arijan Ademi – and feel that they can go one step further than reaching the last 16 two years ago. Then they lost against Benfica but before that they had been unable to qualify for the knockout rounds for almost half a decade.
Not a bad turn of events for Mamic, who could have just as easily been spending this time behind bars rather than on the Dinamo bench. Or, perhaps, fleeing justice like his brother Zdravko, for many years the most powerful figure in Croatian football, who is at large in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
There are not many stories about the domestic game in Croatia in foreign media that does not mention the name Mamic, especially in the past few years after a set of corruption and tax evasion charges were raised against the brothers. The subsequent trial attracted much public attention with the likes of Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren testifying in court. Modric’s testimony, in particular, created headlines because it led to an indictment for perjury against the Real Madrid player and 2018 Ballon d’Or winner, which was later dropped.
In June 2018, the Osijek county court found the Mamics guilty on all charges, the cornerstone of which was making illegal personal profits on player transfers from Dinamo, where they held key executive positions – including the 2008 Modric transfer to Tottenham. The decision is only final upon appeal and after it is confirmed by the superior court but Croatian law specifies that jail terms are effective immediately for any sentence of five years or higher.
Zdravko fled Croatia on the eve of the verdict which gave him six and a half years in jail and has been in Bosnia and Herzegovina since; he holds dual citizenship and the country is not obliged to extradite him. He later claimed on his Facebook page that he had been tipped off by a former football referee, who had “accidentally overheard” some judges discussing the verdict in his case that day.
Zoran, at the time the head coach at the United Arab Emirates club Al Ain FC, was given four years and 11 months, just enough for him not to have to go to jail immediately.
The courts in Croatia tend to move at a snail’s pace. This year, more than 30 months after the verdict, the superior court finally held a hearing in the Mamic case. The prosecution asked for stricter punishments, while the defendants have continued to deny all charges and are asking for them to be dropped altogether. The final decision is still to be announced.
Zoran has returned to Dinamo, the club insisting there was no financial damage done, suggesting Zdravko is still very much in control of the club. Besides, laying low or seeking the moral high ground was never the Mamic way. A year after being found guilty of siphoning off money from the club, Zoran was appointed Dinamo’s director of football. By the end of last season, he took over as manager. Maintaining he was completely innocent, he stated his intention to concentrate on football.
At a press conference upon his return to the club in 2019 he told reporters: “It’s a good question, what is moral? Many of you and your colleagues have judged me already. The verdict is not final yet and the basis of our system is the presumption of innocence.”
After a difficult start for their European ambitions – failing to qualify for the Champions League, which was their main target for the season – Dinamo’s form has improved. They kicked off their Europa League group stage with two goalless draws, but then won six matches in a row and have been playing well recently. Zoran has done a very good job in his second stint as Dinamo manager and that was enough to silence some of the critics. However, his bizarre position and his legal problems remain a concern.
While he is waiting for the court’s final decision, which could see him dismissed from the club before the end of the season – or, indeed, even before their European campaign is over – he has another set of charges to deal with.
Last Wednesday a new trial against the Mamic brothers and their associates finally began after no less than eight postponements for various reasons. The new charges mainly concentrate on various off-shore accounts used to extract more money from transfers of Dinamo players. That day, Dinamo had a cup game against Slaven Belupo in the afternoon, but Zoran needed to spend the entire morning in court, listening to the indictment being read for more than two hours.
So is he a football mastermind – “a Coach with a capital C”, which is how Dinamo put it on their social networks after beating Krasnodar – or just a plain criminal? Or both at the same time? Forces other than José Mourinho and his Spurs side will give the final verdict on that.