The Stern magazine reporters investigating allegations of match fixing couldn't believe their luck. What they were hearing from two UEFA officials amounted to quite possibly the biggest scandal ever in the European game.
There was only one problem with the sensational story that Peter Limacher, the head of UEFA's disciplinary services, and UEFA "investigator" Robin Boksic were telling: It all sounded a little too bad to be true. Stern is particularly careful with big scoops since getting duped into publishing fake diaries attributed to Adolf Hitler in 1983. These days, the general interest magazine from Hamburg employs the most rigorous fact-checking department in German media.
There was only one facet of the supposed scoop that could be independently verified. In the fall of 2008, Spanish authorities were listening in on telephone conversations of local Russian money launderers. One mobster was boasting to an associate that he had "bought" Bayern Munich's 4-0 semifinal loss to eventual UEFA Cup winner Zenit St. Petersburg on May 1 of that year for "50 million" in an unknown currency. Further investigations into the matter couldn't substantiate the suspicion, and both clubs rejected the allegation of foul play as completely baseless.
Earlier this year, Limacher, the well-respected anti-corruption official who operates out of UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, told Stern and Spanish state prosecutor Jose Grinda that an "eight-figure" sum had indeed been deposited in one of Bayern's accounts, and that the private properties of president Uli Hoeness and CFO Karl Hopfner had been raided by German authorities. To top it all off, one player had been found in possession of drugs and a large sum of money.
Repeatedly pressed for hard evidence, neither Limacher nor Boksic could oblige. Stern then discovered that Boksic, a Munich-based Croatian and apparently the sole source of Limacher's information, was himself under investigation for fraudulent business practices. The 32-year-old also had ties with Ante, Filip and Milan Sapina, the three Berlin brothers convicted of fixing matches with the help of corrupt referee Robert Hoyzer in early 2006. The Sapinas were arrested again in November 2009 and are currently being investigated for fixing up to 270 different matches throughout Europe.
Stern revealed that Limacher had sent Boksic to the World Cup as his "best man," too. During the tournament, he had bemused South African authorities with claims that six teams had been "bought." Boksic purported to have received that information from the Chinese secret service but he was quickly seen as untrustworthy. "It is possible that UEFA were funding their own subversion and [actually] facilitated the manipulation of sports betting," an internal FIFA document seen by Stern concluded. In other words: They suspected Boksic was effectively working as a sort of double agent in concert with the very people UEFA was trying to expose.
Limacher denied making the statements attributed to him, but initially stood by his man. "Mr. Boksic is an absolutely reliable source," the 47-year-old Limacher told Financial Times Deutschland last week. "He has [helped us] with the early recognition of irregularities surrounding matches and provided decisive information on the ground."
For Bayern, though, a line had been crossed. The club filed a lawsuit for criminal defamation against Limacher and Boksic. "[Boksic] is a phony," Hoeness said. "I expect UEFA to draw the right conclusions immediately and [to get rid of him]."
Added CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: "We won't let anybody damage our reputation."
In a statement released on the eve of Bayern's Champions League match against AS Roma last week, Europe's governing body feigned "surprise" at the "overreaction" of the German club. "We have total confidence in Peter Limacher, who is at the spearhead of a very difficult battle," general secretary Gianni Infantino said.
The next day, however, UEFA said "it understands the reasons for the reaction of [Bayern] in the light of the recent press coverage," and promised an internal investigation of the matter. One preliminary result was announced Wednesday: "The cooperation between UEFA and Mr. Boksic has ended," a UEFA spokesperson confirmed.
It'll be interesting to see whether Limacher can ride out the storm. Bayern is especially livid because it also holds him responsible for Franck Ribery's enforced absence in the Champions League final against Inter in May. (UEFA's disciplinary commission had banned the Frenchman for three matches after a red card in the semifinal against Lyon.) "Now we know why we never stood a chance [with our appeal]," Hoeness said.
In this week's edition, Stern revealed that Boksic had been given access to UEFA's early warning system and that he was on the payroll of Betradar, the federation's sports betting data provider. The magazine also claimed that he had accused two Slovenian professionals from 1. FC Köln, Miso Brecko and Milivoje Novakovic, of manipulating results.
"They both have debts with various criminal groups," Boksic told FIFA investigators, according to an official dossier that Stern has seen.
Needless to say, Köln has decided to sue, too.