UEFA action to tackle match-fixing has exposed problems at the heart of Macedonian football

By Michel Stojmanovski in Skopje
The word pobeda may mean “victory”, but victory is currently a dirty word in Macedonian football after twice champions FK Pobeda were been banned from European club competitions for eight years.

The ban followed a UEFA investigation into match-fixing allegations relating to a Champions League qualifier against Pyunik of Armenia in July 2004.

Pobeda president Aleksandar Zabrcanec and the club’s then-captain Nikolce Zdraveski were also banned for life from being involved in any football-related activity.

I reported on that game at the City stadium in Skopje and, no matter how incredible it might have seemed at the time that a Champions League game could be fixed, many journalists were suspicious of the 3-1 scoreline.

Pyunik youngster Edgar Manucharyan scored twice as the visitors went 3-0 up by half-time, leaving the home supporters to express their disapproval with a deafening chorus of boos and whistles.

Pyunik were serious outsiders before the game – you could get 6-1 on them winning and 10-1 for them to be ahead both at half-time and full-time.

Nobody expected a miracle in the return leg. Pobeda drew 1-1 and were eliminated from their first Champions League qualifying game.

The next day, Makedonski Sport, the country’s only daily sports paper, alleged the first leg had been fixed.

In October 2004, the same newspaper went further and accused the Macedonian Football Federation (FFM) and its president Haralampie Hadzi-Risteski of fixing the 2006 World Cup qualifying match between Andorra and Macedonia.

It was the first time that tiny Andorra had won a qualifier but the FFM later successfully sued Makedonski Sport, who could not provide any evidence of match-fixing.

The background to the dispute was that the owners of Makedonski Sport had ambitions to lead the federation. In addition, Hadzi-Risteski has close ties to Pobeda. He was club president before taking over the FFM, his sister is married to disgraced president Zabrcanec and the pair were business partners who led Pobeda together until 1999.

The antagonism between Makedonski Sport and Hadzi-Risteski has continued, with the newspaper backing an unsuccessful attempt to unseat him two years ago. Further allegations were made that he had a commercial stake in a betting firm.

Hadzi-Risteski seemed to be weathering the storm. The visit to Skopje in early March of UEFA president Michel Platini was taken as a sign of the European football ruling body’s support for Hadzi-Risteski, who faces re-election later this year. UEFA had pledged a £2.8million donation towards the construction of a new training camp and headquarters for the FFM and a delegation is believed to have inspected progress on the building work.

It is unclear whether Platini was impressed with how his organisation’s money was being spent. However, later that month, at the UEFA congress in Copenhagen, he surprisingly announced that charges had been brought against Pobeda.

The club was found to be “in breach of the principles of integrity and sportsmanship by manipulating the outcome of a match to gain an undue advantage for themselves and for a third party”.

The UEFA charges were based on reports received from the betting industry on irregular betting patterns and the declarations of several witnesses. “UEFA told me the
investigation was prompted by a request from Macedonian journalists, who have offered to act as witnesses,” Hadzi-Risteski said after the charges were announced.

Pobeda, in a club statement, claimed: “We’ve been stabbed in the back by people who promoted themselves through Pobeda, [former coaches] Nikola Ilievski and Dragan Hristovski.”

Hristovski, coach for the matches against Pyunik, said he had been only too keen to help UEFA.

“Even if there was something suspicious about this game, Zabrcanec would not have told me,” he said. “The more people who knew about any deal, the more likely it was to fail. I wouldn’t sit on the bench like a jerk for a fixed game if I knew something.

“At the time nothing was suspicious but looking back there were mistakes when we conceded the goals.

“I’m available for the police and UEFA’s investigation and I’ll tell what I know and what I suspect. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Milenko Nedelkovski, one of the journalists whose status as a protected witness was blown by Hadzi-Risteski, believed, however, that the evidence of European betting companies persuaded UEFA to take action.

“The evidence was presented by a Belgian betting expert,” said Nedelkovski. “His analysis showed that the average money gambled on such a match was 100,000 euros [£90,000]. But the companies lost between four and five million euros [£3.6-4.5m] on this match. That was what alarmed UEFA. I wasn’t a key witness, but an objective one.”

Pobeda reacted furiously to the verdict, lodging an appeal and accusing UEFA of a politically-motivated decision linked directly to the forthcoming elections. “This is an attack on somebody [Hadzi-Risteski] who has done a lot for our club in the past,” said Zabrcanec.
UEFA is still investigating bets placed on an InterToto Cup match between Bulgarians Cherno More and Makedonija in July 2007. Cherno More won the first leg 4-0 in Macedonia and went through 7-0 on aggregate.

So the Pobeda case is not the first time a team from Macedonia has come under suspicion of match-fixing. But Platini and UEFA seem determined to show that enough is enough.
A campaign to get rid of Hadzi-Risteski is under way, but the FA president is determined to resist and outflank his opponents. Victory, like Pobeda, may prove elusive, however.