We’re pleased to welcome back our regular Belgrade-based contributor Bojan Babic with another fascinating story from Yugoslavian football history. Today’s tale is all about the notorious set of fixtures that decided the outcome of the 1986 championship race – and the long-lasting fall-out that paralysed the Yugoslav game as a consequence.
“Match-fixing exists everywhere in the world, but only in the Balkans is it done so bloody obviously”: so spoke the Red Star Belgrade & Milan legend Dejan Savićević, a man known for his brutally honest public statements. To understand something of what he was talking about we’ll wind back thirty years to the infamous ‘Šajber’s Round,’ a chaotic event that presaged one of the biggest scandals to rock Yugoslav football.
The Šajber in question was the then president of the Yugoslav Football Association (FSJ), Slavko Šajber, a high-ranking Croatian communist bureaucrat who retrospectively annulled the results of the entire final round of the 1985/86 season. The reason for this? Match-fixing on an unprecedented scale.
‘It would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so tragic’ is an old Serbian proverb which perfectly sums up the events of Saturday 14th June 1986, when the results of seven of the nine fixtures played were extremely suspect. At the top of the League Partizan and Red Star Belgrade went into the final round neck-and-neck on 47 points, Partizan having the slightest of advantages thanks to a goal difference one better than their great rivals.
Although matches were scheduled to start and finish at the same time, Partizan subverted this rule by arranging a farewell ceremony before the kick-off for two of their key players, Zvonko Živković and Zvonko Varga, who were moving abroad that summer. With Red Star’s fixture away against FK Sarajevo starting on time, that 15-minute delay gave Partizan the chance to monitor the progress of their title rivals and that bit of extra time to react, if necessary, to fluctuating scorelines. For the duration of Partizan’s home game against Željezničar, thousands of nervous fans in the stands watched the game with pocket radios pressed tightly to ears. Commentators bemoaned Željezničar’s previously sound defence meekly conceding three times to Partizan in the first half hour, a story not greatly dissimilar to what was going on in Sarajevo where the FK team appeared to be wholly disinterested in giving Red Star any sort of meaningful game.
Let’s look at what was at play in that last round:
FK Sarajevo v Red Star Belgrade
Trailing Partizan by a single goal, Red Star needed to win and win resoundingly to have a chance of become champions.
Result: Sarajevo – Red Star 0:4
Partizan Belgrade v Željezničar Sarajevo
Partizan had to match Red Star’s result to stay ahead of them and secure the championship on goal difference.
Result: Partizan – Željezničar 4:0. Partizan duly took the title.
Vojvodina v Dinamo Zagreb
With Vojvodina already relegated, Dinamo Zagreb needed to win this game convincingly to earn UEFA Cup qualification.
Result: Vojvodina – Dinamo Zagreb 1:7
Sutjeska v Budućnost
A draw meant that both teams would likely avoid relegation. A high-scoring draw improved each club’s goals for figure, the second criteria used to separate clubs after goal difference.
Result: Sutjeska – Budućnost 5:5
Hajduk Split v Dinamo Vinkovci
Hajduk had to win in order to clinch a spot in the UEFA Cup, while Dinamo striker Davor Čop needed to score three goals to become the league’s top scorer and secure himself a lucrative contract with Italian club Empoli.
Result: Hajduk Split – Dinamo Vinkovci 5:3. Davor Čop scored a hat-trick for the visitors.
Velež Mostar v OFK Belgrade
OFK Belgrade required a win to keep their chances of staying in the league alive. Velez sat in third place in the table and had enjoyed an exemplary home record all season.
Result: Velež – OFK Belgrade 2:3. Despite this win OFK still failed to avoid relegation.
Čelik v Rijeka
For Rijeka one point was enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup, while the same outcome would mean Čelik should avoid relegation.
Result: Čelik – Rijeka 1:1
The other two fixtures (Priština – Vardar 0:0 and Osijek – Sloboda Tuzla 2:1) were completely regular as none of the teams involved had anything significant to play for.
Six days after this disgraceful charade Slavko Šajber announced the FSJ’s judgement: the notorious Round 34 set of fixtures would be annulled and replayed, while all participants in the matches under suspicion would start the following season with a six-point penalty.
So ten days later the teams duly turned out for their rearranged fixtures, with one notable exception – the new champions, Partizan Belgrade. “There’s no way that we play again, we are the champions”, announced Partizan’s management. “Our players are already on their summer vacation and any acceptance of a replay would mean that we admit taking part in the match-fixing, which is absolutely not the case. We have the support of our fans and that’s all that matters to us”.
Šajber remained resolute: “We gave Partizan a chance to confirm their title and they didn’t do it, so now we don’t need to feel bad about our decision. And if they don’t like it, well file a complaint with our doorman”. Partizan had no hesitation in taking their complaint to a much higher authority, all the way to the Constitutional Court and the Court of Joint Labour.
By refusing to play Partizan forfeited their replayed fixture against Željezničar with a 3-0 scoreline, meaning that despite losing 2-1 at FK Sarajevo, Red Star turned a single goal difference deficit into a single goal difference advantage to controversially become the new champions of Yugoslavia.
This was just a beginning of a long and bitter power struggle. The public initially viewed Slavko Šajber as a modern socialist version of Eliot Ness, a fearless crusader for justice out to take down the corrupt institutions of the Yugoslav game, but gradually his public reputation started to wane. Support he received from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ) and especially from Mitja Ribičič, a very influential Slovenian politician, was seized upon by some Partizan officials as an indication of “obvious political games with a much deeper motive”. The general antagonism between Belgrade and Zagreb rose to a very high level despite Šajber’s continuing protestations that his only mission was to “extinguish the football mafia, irrelevant of its nationality and origins”.
Consigned to play UEFA Cup football the following season rather than the European Cup campaign they had expected, a dispirited Partizan team was easily swept side by Borussia Mönchengladbach and worse was to follow domestically. Without the 6 point penalty the club would have comfortably won the 1987 championship; with it however they were consigned to second place, a point behind penalty-free Vardar Skopje. Their legal fight remained ongoing though and eventually yielded the desired outcome in the summer of 1987 when the Constitutional Court and the Court of Joint Labour both overruled Šajber’s original decision on the basis of “lack of evidence”. Partizan were given back the 1986 title and awarded the 1987 one too, the 10th and 11th in the club’s history, without any further compensation being due.
Slavko Šajber resigned on the back of those verdicts and the public outcry that followed. Later he would state that in fact he was fighting against “Serbian hegemony”, but Šajber’s simultaneous criticism of a new Croatian nationalistic leader in Franjo Tuđman isolated him from many who had originally supported him and cast him into the wilderness during the 1990s. He eventually died of cancer in 2003 after rumours circulated that he had been involved in smuggling jewels in his later years.
That infamous championship had concluded one day after the finale of the 1986 World Cup and the scrutiny revealed how rotten Yugoslav football had become. It was also a painful demonstration of the vulnerability and fragility of the entire Yugoslav federation and its society at that time. Yugoslav football acted as an effective portent for the inevitable dissolution of a country, and it was football again that was the catalyst for the event itself when Zvonimir Boban attacked a policeman in the Maksimir Stadium less than four years later to set the revolution in motion.
Partizan 4 Željezničar Sarajevo 0 (original game, subsequently annuled)
FK Sarajevo 0 Red Star Belgrade 4 (original game, subsequently annuled)