Rifle, Regime, Revenge and the Ugly Game
Ever since the game of football was created, it has evolved its own stories – some good, some bad and some ugly. The tragedy of Andrés Escobar has not yet passed into oblivion; possibly the ugliest instance in the entire history of football. However, that’s not the end of it. This beautiful game has been jeopardized from time to time – often by an autocratic regime or a greedy individual. Here are some episodes where the sanity of the enjoyment has been brutally and repeatedly raped.
Story I: Land of Guns ‘n’ Roses
After the adventurous journey of Bulgarian football team in the 1994 World Cup, the football fanaticism of the country reached its zenith. That, though, was only one side of the picture. According to different cable sources, Bulgarian football has become paralyzed by the intervention of the mafia, underworld and prominent criminal figures. Bulgaria, known for its valley of roses, offers roses no more; rather the artistry of guns, corruption and threats prevail there.
After the fall of Communism, things went downhill for Bulgarian football management. The new influential businessmen who were heavily linked with the underworld started to own individual clubs. They mostly owned these popular clubs to decontaminate their illegitimate profits and craft an elusive legitimate image. As such, Bulgarian football became grossly polluted with numerous match fixing rumours and allegations of gambling on matches. It was also used as a tax-evasion tool. Bribing the referee became the easiest practice behind match fixing and the gambling businesses. The criminal infrastructure was so organized that it was hard to find any evidence or witness. There were subtle revolts though. Momchil Vraikov, Dimitar Dimitrov, Krassimir Yosifov and Hristo Ristoskov – these four referees came out of their shells and accused Ivan Lekov – the deputy head of the State Agency for Sports and Youth and a former referee – of bribing and threatening. Lekov was arrested in 2008 but was acquitted eventually due to lack of proper evidences. As a repercussion of this mayhem, Bulgarian Football Union was forced to suspend the whole referee association. Not once, but twice in the process.
The ‘Kazan Incident’ exposed the corruption further and put Todor Batkov – the chief of Levski FC – in the dock. The allegation involved the transfer of Levski’s four best players to Russian club Rubin Kazan for a total of €5M, just before the derby against CSKA FC, only for them to return immediately after the match. Meanwhile, Levski were defeated convincingly by a 2-0 margin without their star players. Though Mr. Batkov claimed that he had been tricked and forced to make these fake transfers, but many journalists smelt whiffs of international fraud and gambling profits.
The Underworld monopoly was looming large. 6 presidents of the famous Bulgarian club Lokomotiv Plovdiv have been assassinated since 1995. In a club owned by the criminal organization called VIS, assassination of their presidents appears to be a natural phenomenon. Here goes the list of the presidents: Georgi Kalapatirov (in 1995), Georgi Prodanov (in 1995), Petar Petrov (in 1998), Georgi Iliev (in 2005), Nikolai Popov (in 2005) and Alexander Tasev (in 2007).
The chairmen are often selected from the VIS. Georgi Iliev, who features in the assassinated list is a notorious figure connected with drug dealing and gambling, and had been sentenced to 11 years behind the bar for a rape case. In his early days, there was even a charge that, he had planned to kidnap the teenager Dimitar Berbatov, to force him to sign for his club.
Bulgarian football being in such chaos, the public and fans are losing interest, both in matches and clubs. A declining Television viewer rate and ever reducing stadium attendance just emphasize this statement. Most of the clubs are owned by Mafia bosses and have become an institution of crime and money laundering. The league and cup games have merely turned to puppet shows controlled by the Mafia. Has the beautiful game ever been such heinous?
Story II: The Coliseum of Football
This true story revokes the memory of a shrewd regime which insensitively used football as the safety tunnel to rescue themselves from political pandemonium. Long ago, the Roman emperors built the gigantic coliseum to divert people from prevailing social and economical commotion. The Junta regime of Myanmar brings back that history.
Rewinding the timeline a little back to 2009, we could see the foundation of Myanmar National League (MNL) which altogether has 12 clubs now. An inaugural two-month long tournament, Myanmar National League Cup 2009 was organized in preparation for the upcoming season. There was zeal everywhere. If we push back a little more to 2008, the situation was somewhat different. Well, quite a contrast actually. It was the time when the country faced the turbulent Nargis – a devastating cyclone that caused the heaviest destruction of life and property in the history of Burma. She was so devastating that she claimed 138,000 lives and caused enormous infrastructural losses. Shockingly, the military government totally failed to face the disaster. There were also strong allegations of corruption and aid blocking. Agitations were everywhere concerning the issues of blocking international worker visa, sabotaging financial aid, suppression of death toll count and so on.
The military Junta which ruled the country felt the turmoil and promptly deployed quite a cunning plan to distract the public from the prevalent situation. The reigning Commander-in-chief, Than Shwe chose football as a mode of distraction in the football crazy country. According to a secret WikiLeaks cable, he even wished to buy the English Premier League club, Manchester United with a takeover bid of $1billion, insisted by his football enthusiastic grandson, at a time when they failed to provide even basic survival facilities to the Nargis-hit areas. According to different links, even after two weeks of the disaster, relief had only reached 25 percent of the people in distress. Than Shwe later scrapped this project considering the situation and the impact it could have led to. Instead, he created the multi-million dollar Myanmar National League while survivors of Nargis still lacked shelter. The country was definitely lacking a nationwide football league. Than Shwe used this loophole, and headed by some regime crony businessmen and his grandson’s friend Zaw Zaw (president of Myanmar Football Federation), established the league with millions of dollars of investment. The business tycoons were pressurized to own new clubs and as a return they were fed with government contracts. Owners paid for everything for the clubs, from the players’ salaries to stadium constructions. Zaw Zaw, who also owns a club called Delta United, recruited Than Shwe’s grandson as a player. Their filthy intentions might have proved to be a success but the purity of football was once again raped. The Myanmar National League still stands as the symbol of Roman Coliseum ruining happiness of thousands of Nargis victims.
Story III: Devil’s Chamber
After tales of mobsters, trickery and shrewdness, it’s a chronicle of brutality. This true story seems to be a plot of the torture-porn movies like Saw, Hostel etc, which prevails as one of the darkest reigns of the football world. What happens when a sadistic devil runs a nation’s football association? During the reign of Saddam Hussein, the dictator’s eldest son, Uday Hussain was in command of Iraq’s Olympic committee and the national football team.
His reign appeared to be a nightmare for the Iraqi national football team players. Allegations from the national team players told of how he used to punish and torture footballers for every poor performance in matches. Several sources claimed that, he used to keep a torture score sheet for each player and kept count of each error, miss-pass or fumble. Footballers were slapped or kicked as many times as the scorecard reflected, if the team lost or drew a match. The punishments were not limited to mere slapping. Often footballers were forced to shave their head, or perm. Footballers say he did not understand the game at all, but was so desperate for a win that he would call players from their dressing room during half-time and threaten to cut off their legs and feed them to the dogs. His extreme sadistic nature made him maintain a bunch of torture tools in his chamber to torment the footballers. Often players were imprisoned. In 1999, following Iraq’s loss to Japan and South Korea, the entire football squad was taken to a farm where they were made to live with the animals for around a month. This human (?) destroyed so many footballers’ lives and turned the beautiful game into the regime’s sadistic pastime.
Story IV: Operation Rose and Death of a Defector
The last of the series is possibly the most heart rending. It’s a fiction of political escape melted with breach in romance, a vindictive leader and football, the ugly game. Back in 1979, Dynamo Berlin – one of the popular clubs of East Germany went to Kaiserslautern, West Germany to play a friendly. It was a historic travel for them as it was the first time the players were allowed to see the other side of the Berlin Wall. Lutz Eigendorf was one of them – a talented midfielder who had debuted for the East German national team few months back scoring a brace against Bulgaria. However, this trip was risky for Dynamo and they put the players under strict discipline for two days before the trip, because the country had already lost a few good players to West Germany. But young Eigendorf thought otherwise. Dynamo lost the match 4-1 but an even bigger loss was waiting for them when they found that their key midfielder had escaped while returning. Eigendorf had a desire to play for Kaiserslautern and the only way left for him was to flee from East Germany; but the young footballer did not realize that this escape would change his status overnight from a prospering national footballer to a political defector – in one word, a ‘traitor’. Life turned bleak for Lutz Eigendorf after this. UEFA banned him promptly for 1 year because of the defection. He had left his young wife Gabriele and two year old daughter Sandy back in Berlin, but could meet them no more. After a while, Gabriele filed a divorce and eventually re-married. Poor Lutz, losing his family, social status and mental peace, tried to concentrate in football. But his injury stricken days didn’t allow him to flourish to his full potential in Bundesliga. He was sold to Eintracht in 1983 where he continued to suffer from injury. It was March 5, 1983, when the 26 year old hit his car on a tree dangerously and died 2 days later.
There, however, was one more character in the story – Erich Mielke, who was the Minister of State Security and head of the Stasi (Secret Police). The charismatic figure was a renowned football fan of Dynamo and served as the chairman of the club at the time of Lutz’s defection. He didn’t remain silent. He put Lutz’s young wife under severe police surveillance. His desire to punish Lutz was so extreme that he launched ‘Operation Rose’ and started to send various male agents to seduce Gabriela. One among them, ‘Agent Lothario’ succeeded in marrying her in 1979, and adopted their little daughter. The marriage was fake but good enough to disconnect Eigendorf from his family. This however, did not stop Mielke from taking any further action. He became so vindictive that he hired a killer, Karl-Heinz Felgner, who later admitted about the contract, that he didn’t fulfil. The police had found a shockingly high level of alcohol in Lutz’s body, although it is claimed that he didn’t drink much on the fateful night. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the secret Stasi files were recovered, it was exposed that Lutz was poisoned that night and Stasi used flash light from the opposite direction while Lutz was driving. The revengeful club president eventually succeeded in punishing the young talented footballer for his act of ‘treachery’ to his club.
The ever smiling face of Lutz Eigendorf will keep reminding us of the ugly face of football.