ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Soccer player Mario Cizmek thought it would just be one match. Ease up and let the other team win, he told himself, then collect the payoff and start paying off your debts.
But the broke and desperate athlete soon learned that one match wouldn't do it. He would have to throw another game, then another, then another. And so it went until, in what he described as his "worst moment," he was arrested at his home in front of his two daughters on charges of match-fixing, frantically dialing his wife to take the children because police were hauling him off to jail.
"Twenty years of hard work I destroyed in just one month," he said.
This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.
The Croatian midfielder was the perfect target for fixers: He was nearing the end of his career, his financially unstable club hadn't paid him a regular salary for 14 months, and he owed money on back taxes and his pension.
Cizmek's story is typical of how the world's most popular sport is increasingly becoming a dirty game — sullied by criminal gangs like the one that bribed Cizmek, and by corrupt officials or others cashing in on the billion-dollar web of match-fixing.
An examination of Cizmek's case turns up contrasting portraits of the 36-year-old with quick feet and an engaging smile.
One is of a victim — a player forced into match-fixing by an unscrupulous club and preyed upon by a shadowy former coach convicted of bribery, fraud and conspiracy in a Croatian match-fixing case and banned for life from soccer by FIFA, the world soccer body. That's the picture painted by FIFPro, the global players' union, which has used Cizmek's story to warn players.
Croatian prosecutors, armed with reams of phone calls and text messages from police wiretaps, have a different take. At a match-fixing trial at the County Court of Zagreb, they portrayed Cizmek as the ringleader who got several FC Croatia Sesvete players to throw six games and tried to fix a seventh in spring 2010. The authorities said he organized the players, handed out sealed blue envelopes of euros, and promised that they could stop whenever they wanted.
Cizmek readily admits he delivered the payments but says it was only because his apartment was closest to the fixer. Looking back, he says, he realizes he was manipulated.
"Now I see that he didn't want to be seen handing over the money," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Cizmek joined FC Zagreb on a junior scholarship, signed at 18, and played there for eight years.
"Those were the best years. All my dreams came true," he said. "I signed a professional contract and was among the better players. They thought highly of me. I was even a captain of this club."
After stints in Israel and Iceland, he returned home to play for FC Croatia Sesvete in the country's second league. In 2008, Cizmek scored the goal that sent his team into the top division. That goal benefited every player on the team and lined the pockets of the club's owner, Zvonko Zubak.
But the team fell on hard times, especially with the European economic downturn.
The entire FC Croatia Sesvete locker room was in an uproar for months, with players trying to make ends meet, Cizmek said. A study by the FIFPro union reported that more than 60 percent of Croatian players do not get paid on time.
"We had no money, and we no longer spoke about training or football, but only about how we were going to survive," Cizmek said.
"Every other day we would ask whether we would be paid, and they would say 'Yes, on Monday.' Then we say, 'OK, on Monday,'" he said. But there would be no pay on Monday — only a promise to be paid Wednesday — and then no money that day either.
"It would go on for weeks," Cizmek said, shaking his head.
One man who hung around the players offering advice and sympathy — and loans to those short on cash — was Vinko Saka, a former assistant coach for Dinamo Zagreb, the soccer powerhouse that has won Croatia's national title every year since 2006.
Saka was always somewhere around the field or at the bars where the players gathered, Cizmek said.
A flashy figure in his 50s who drove a BMW X6, he promised to introduce young players to the dozens of foreign coaches and clubs he said he knew.
"He was always offering presents," Cizmek said. "I had known Vinko for years. We were kind of friends. He was someone who was related to sports, whom I was seeing at the matches. He coached junior teams."
Midfielder Dario Susak, then 22, testified that Saka suggested he could help him get a contract with a foreign club, then loaned him $2,550 at a high interest rate. Once he owed the money, Susak testified, Saka told him he would have to lose matches.
Unbeknownst to any of them, Croatian police were already running a wiretap on Saka after being tipped off by German investigators.
Croatian prosecutors said Saka bribed up to 10 people on Cizmek's team, and another five tied to either FC Varteks or FC Medimurje.
Saka ended up being convicted of fraud, bribery and conspiracy and going to jail. His lawyer confirmed the plea bargain but wouldn't discuss the case.
The deal involving Cizmek came together at Fort Apache, a steakhouse on the truck route between Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and Slovenia. Cizmek and his goalkeeper met there with Saka and two associates on March 25, 2010, to fix a game with FC Zadar two days later, according to players' testimony and police transcripts.
Six players would get $24,220, although the money was not divided equally. One of the unwritten rules of match-fixing is that the goalkeeper gets the biggest share because his statistics suffer the worst blow; defenders get the next-biggest, midfielders get less and strikers often are not even included in the fix.
The result: Zadar won 2-1 as Cizmek, one of the best players, stayed on the bench. After the game, he said, he collected $2,550, bought his kids a bunk bed and stashed the rest away, saving up to pay an overdue tax bill.
Cizmek saw himself as a Robin Hood-sort of figure: stealing money from crooks to put food on the table for his teammates and their families who were being crushed by an unjust system.
The match-fixing train had begun rolling, and it would prove difficult to stop.
The stakes were raised for an April 3 match against FC Slaven Belupo, according to players' testimony. This time it was $51,000 for eight players. They not only had to lose, but to do so by at least three goals. That enabled those in on the deal to win two bets in one match.
Cizmek's team lost 4-0. Saka, however, delivered only $43,300, eight Croatia Sesvete players testified in court. Cizmek said Saka did not explain why.
The demands for an April 14 game against FC Rijeka were even greater: $51,000 to trail at halftime, a final score that included more than three goals, with the team losing by at least two goals, Cizmek testified.
Player Ante Pokrajcic testified that he was happy to have scored a goal until the team's owner stormed into the locker room, cursing about the 1-1 halftime score. Only then did Pokrajcic realize the game had been fixed.
The team lost 4-2, but Saka delivered only about half of what was promised, according to players' testimony.
The players were furious. In the next game, they won 3-1 against Inter Zapresic.
But another unwritten rule of match-fixing soon became clear to Cizmek: Once a player has fixed a game, he is trapped forever.
The criminal gang usually has enough evidence to get a player thrown out of the sport for life. Plus, the shame alone will keep him silent, and the fixer's demands will keep escalating until the player quits, retires or gets caught. Some implicated in match-fixing have even committed suicide.
When Cizmek approached the goalkeeper and a midfielder about fixing an April 17 game against FC Lokomotiva, they refused. He handed the money back to Saka two hours before the game, he said.
"If I was really the ringleader, I could have made them do it," he told the AP. "But I couldn't do it. ... We told them, 'No more.'"
Saka exploded in anger but made sure not to bet, Cizmek said. FC Lokomotiva won 2-1 anyway, and Cizmek said he scored a goal "just for pride" in the second half.
For the last three games of the season, Saka went above the players' heads to fix the game, according to players' testimony. Those involved now included the coach and one of the owner's sons — both of whom were convicted in the case.
"Saka came to me and said, 'I have arranged everything higher up. If you want you can check with the son,'" Cizmek said.
Cizmek said he refused to deliver that message to the other players, making the son talk individually with each athlete. Other players confirmed his account in court. Cizmek said the fixer made sure not to involve the owner's other son, a young player on the team.
With substantial bribes now going to the coach, the payouts for the players grew meager: $22,300 for seven players in the last game, according to testimony.
Overall, Cizmek earned $26,130 from match-fixing, not as much as goalkeeper Ivan Banovic ($37,600), defender Jasmin Agic ($35,000) or coach Goran Jerkovic ($33,000), according to the findings of the court in its sentencing document.
The season ended in early May but police did not come knocking until June 8.
Cizmek was arrested at his home and taken to Zagreb's Remetinec jail, where he stayed until July 15. His wife handed police the $20,000 he had been saving for his tax bill. The bunk beds were all he had to show for his money.
He went on trial for match-fixing with 14 others.
With the wiretaps, prosecutors had a very strong case. Cizmek made a full confession, pleaded guilty and gave testimony to the players' union against match-fixing. But he and the coach still got the longest sentence — 10 months.
The goalkeeper, the owner's son and three others were given nine months; two players got eight months; and the youngest member of the team, a 20-year-old midfielder, got a seven-month suspended sentence.
They are now free, awaiting the result of their appeal.
Saka cut a plea bargain with prosecutors in which he was convicted of fraud, bribery and conspiracy to commit a crime against the public order and sentenced to one year in prison. The Zagreb court ordered him to pay back $58,800 of the $844,000 it estimated his fixing operation made in Croatia.
Saka served his time in jail and then went to Italy to be questioned in a match-fixing investigation there. His lawyer in Italy, Kresimir Krsnik, said prosecutors have six months to decide whether to press charges.
"Saka will answer any call from the court. He has given his statement there and returned home," Krsnik told the AP.
Saka is back living in an affluent Zagreb neighborhood, driving around in his BMW.
Cizmek is trying hard not to be bitter.
Chain-smoking Marlboros at a Zagreb coffee bar, he dreads going back to jail.
"I was in there already, with murderers and rapists and drug addicts," he said. "It was a scary place."
He is angry that Saka got a much better plea deal than the players and doesn't hold out hope for his appeal, which is pending.
He says his club still owes him salary but went bankrupt in 2012 and dissolved.
He works on his family's organic farm, peddling jams and berry tea at farmers' markets, but is just scraping by. In one of his last interviews with the AP, Cizmek mentioned his recent divorce, and worry lines around his eyes seemed deeper.
He mourns for his lost soccer career and doesn't know what he will do with the rest of his life.
"I should have just taken my football shoes and hung them on the wall and said: 'Thank you, guys' and gone on to do something else," Cizmek said.
Still, he knows what he did was wrong.
"Everything I lost is my fault. I need to take the responsibility. I don't blame anyone, not even Saka," he said. "No one made me do this."
He cited an old Balkan expression: "The one who confesses, half their sins will be forgiven."
"I have opened my soul to you," he said. "I hope it will pay me back in karma for being so honest."
Norman-Culp is AP's Assistant Europe Editor in London. Prior to that, she covered FIFA for AP in Zurich. Follow her at snormanculp(at)twitter.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.