Zagreb (AFP) – Controversial former Dinamo Zagreb boss Zdravko Mamic on Thursday faces a multi-million euro corruption trial, a crucial case for Croatian football which is already burdened with hooliganism and poor infrastructure.

Mamic, considered the most powerful figure in the sport in the former Yugoslav republic, has been charged with abuse of power and bribery between 2008 to 2012. 

Croatia’s anti-corruption office (USKOK) last year also indicted his brother and former Dinamo Zagreb coach, Zoran Mamic, former club director Damir Vrbanovic, and a tax inspector.

The alleged offences cost the Croatian champions nearly 116 million kunas (15.6 million euros, $16.7 million) and the state budget 12 million kunas.

Most of the money — more than 12 million euros — was illegally acquired by the Mamic brothers, according to the indictment. The cash was allegedly embezzled through fictitious deals related to player transfers.

Mamic resigned as executive president of the club in February last year, two months before he was indicted.

According to local media, two international stars — Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and defender Dejan Lovren of Liverpool — will appear as witnesses during the trial.

The process is seen as crucial for Croatian football, which is known for the successes of its national squad but also for its hooligans, who are considered to be among Europe’s most notorious.

– ‘Public trust lost’ –

“Croatian football is heavily burdened with many things, from insufficient and outdated infrastructure through hooliganism to the indictments against Mamic and Vrbanovic,” former international defender Dario Simic told AFP.

Vrbanovic is currently the executive president of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS).

“The worst is that the trust of the whole society in football is lost,” said Simic, Croatia’s football union chief, who was part of the team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France.

By throwing flares, chanting fascist slogans and displaying pro-Nazi symbols at matches, Croatian fans have often overshadowed the squad’s performances.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin warned Croatia during a visit in December that it risked drastic sanctions for hooliganism, which he labelled a major problem. 

Croatia has already been hit with a series of FIFA and UEFA sanctions over the issue.

Upon FIFA’s orders, it played two World Cup qualifying matches behind closed doors for the repeated chanting of fascist slogans.

Hooliganism has increased in Croatia since Davor Suker, a former international striker, took over as HNS president in mid-2012.

Many fans consider Suker and the federation too closely linked with Mamic. They hope to weaken the federation by forcing it to pay repeated fines to UEFA for their troublesome behaviour at matches.

Critics say that non-transparent management within the HNS has led to huge animosity among many football fans and the public towards both the federation and football in general.

“A narrow circle of HNS leaders dictates absolutely everything regarding Croatian football, which is stirring many tensions,” said Robert Matteoni, a prominent Croatian sports journalist.

– ‘Politically motivated’ –

Shoddy infrastructure is also blamed for a lack of interest in local matches, which are often played at old and dilapidated stadiums, while poor training conditions prompt young players to go overseas as soon as they can.

Since Croatia’s independence was declared in 1991 only two small First Division stadiums have been constructed, in the coastal towns of Pula and Rijeka. 

The HNS argues that hooligans are to blame for the empty stadiums and has slammed the country’s authorities for failing for years to tackle the problem.

The World Cup qualifier against Ukraine held in Zagreb in March passed without incident, despite being the first in two years that was not played behind closed doors. The federation hailed it as an “evening of which we were all proud”.

Mamic’s trial is to be held in the eastern town of Osijek, which local media said was an attempt to avoid the magnate’s influence on judges in Zagreb, with some of whom he allegedly has close ties.

Mamic, 57, said he could “hardly wait for the trial to start” to prove his innocence. 

He has repeatedly argued that the probes against him are politically motivated “to destroy Dinamo and the Mamic family”.