For Dragan Stojkovic, a former star soccer player in Japan and the current manager of J1 club Nagoya Grampus, planning match strategy or mulling over player selection must provide a welcome distraction compared to what he has been dealing with back home in Serbia.
Months after an explosion at his home, the mystery surrounding that incident only appears to be getting deeper as the case takes many twists and turns. It is also exposing the dark secrets of Serbian soccer, such as financial irregularities over the transfer of high-priced players as well as ties to organized crime.
One night in a quiet residential area in southern Serbia in late February, with the town of Nis still covered in several centimeters of snow, a hand grenade exploded in the yard of the family home of the 47-year-old Stojkovic, a former Yugoslavian national team midfielder and a former president of top Serbian club team Red Star Belgrade.
Stojkovic's mother, Desanka, was in the house at the time. She was shaken but not injured.
“I thought the heaters had exploded,” says a 76-year-old neighbor who heard the explosion.
The neighbor ran out, saw smoke and sparks coming from Stojkovic's garden, but did not see Stojkovic's mother at the time. The next morning, the neighbor visited Desanka, who reportedly was petrified and had no idea what to do.
Desanka initially hesitated to call the police, but finally did so after the neighbor convinced her to. This is how the incident went public.
At the home, Asahi Shimbun reporters recently saw a crater measuring about 1.5 meters in diameter in the yard. Desanka told the reporters, “I don’t want to talk about anything right now,” and refrained from commenting further.
Roughly a month after the explosion, local police arrested five men based on DNA and other evidence taken from the scene.
The main perpetrator was Dragan Bulic, 36, former vice president of the Serbian first division clubs’ association.
But what followed was both unexpected and inexplicable. Immediately after the arrests, Serbia's minister of internal affairs, Ivica Dacic, announced that multiple sources had provided information on Bulic and his former guards’ involvement in the incident.
Just two days later, however, the police changed Bulic’s charges to “possession of minor amounts of drugs,” and then they released him.
Bulic had previously served as president of a club team. Local media reported that there had been financial squabbles between Bulic’s team and Red Star Belgrade, a local powerhouse for which Stojkovic served as president between 2005 and 2007.
Media reports hinted that the explosion was Bulic’s revenge for the aforementioned money problems.
But Bulic has told local media that he “has always been on good terms with Piksi,” referring to Stojkovic’s nickname, and he denied any involvement in the case.
Meanwhile, Bulic also insisted that he did not receive the 2 million euros (or about 200 million yen) that was supposed to have been paid when he transferred four members of his team to Red Star. Bulic explained that he had been “seeking advice on a solution” from Stojkovic regarding this matter.
In a statement to local media, Stojkovic also said he had no problems with Bulic while he served as president of Red Star and that he was on good terms with Bulic. He added that he believed he was not the target of the grenade attack.
Since then, Bulic is believed to have gone into hiding outside of Serbia. The men who are believed to have carried out the attack are keeping silent, and the case remains unresolved.
Miodrag Cvorovic, 44, a producer at Belgrade's independent TV station B 92, says that the soccer industry, with its complex dealings, has become a breeding ground for organized crime.
The former Yugoslavia has produced so many major soccer players that the nation has been dubbed the “Brazil of Eastern Europe.”
Serbia, which maintained most of the nation’s top soccer teams and players after Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, kept alive the old system of managing teams through the Serbian first division clubs’ association, which is monitored by the government.
“The ties (from the past) with organized crime were also maintained,” according to Cvorovic.
In recent years, a fraud case involving soccer shocked fans, both inside and outside of Serbia. Dragan Dzajic, who preceded Stojkovic as president of Red Star Belgrade and is considered one of the best players in the history of the former Yugoslavia, was arrested in 2008 on charges of fraud related to the transfer of players.
According to Cvorovic, at least nine officials of clubs or the association have been murdered in the years leading up to 2008.
Huge sums of money are involved in the transfer of top players. The transfer of funds is usually done through players’ individual bank accounts, often making it difficult to find out how much profit each club actually earned.
This is reportedly another factor that breeds tax evasion or illegal management of funds.
There have also been reports of clubs hiring fans to pressure media officials. A female reporter at B 92 has been threatened and is receiving police protection.
Red Star Belgrade sold many players while Stojkovic was team president.
“There is a possibility that Stojkovic found out that there were many players allegedly involved with organized crime, and transferred players in order to reduce the influence of organized crime syndicates over the team,” speculates Cvorovic.
He believes the grenade thrown into Stojkovic’s garden “may have been some form of warning or revenge.”
One day, the truth in this murky matter may be known. When--or if--that day will arrive, however, is anybody’s guess.
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