Red Star Belgrade, embroiled in a Champions League match-fixing scandal, have erected a wall of silence around the Rajko Mitic Stadium ahead of their clash with Liverpool on Wednesday.
The trip to Anfield should have been a celebration for the team, 27 years after they won the European Cup, the first and last triumph in the competition for a club from the former Yugoslavia.
But now the match has been overshadowed by suspicion following the announcement that French investigators are probing allegations of match-fixing in the club’s 6-1 thrashing by Paris Saint-Germain in their last Champions League group-stage outing on October 3.
The probe was launched after French sports daily L’Equipe alleged that a senior Red Star official bet five million euros ($5.8 million) on the side losing by a five-goal margin to the French champions.
The claims upset many Serbs including Predrag Saric, editor-in-chief of the Sportski Zurnal daily paper.
“Serbs are the ideal culprits. No one has read yet that the investigation had actually started, but they are already condemned,” Saric told Serbian state-run television channel RTS.
He was also surprised that “in the age of modern technology, everything is not yet clear”.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a long-time Red Star supporter, said he was “very sceptical” regarding the allegations.
“I think that the greatest part of what they are talking about is not true,” he told reporters.
The Serbian leader vowed to “examine every possibility of whether anyone and in any way could have tarnished the name of our club and our country”.
After releasing two statements in which they urged a rapid investigation and threatened legal action against L’Equipe for defamation, the club have fallen silent.
Red Star president and Serbian football great Dragan Dzajic hasn’t been answering his mobile phone.
General director Zvezdan Terzic said the club had decided not to comment further following the initial two statements.
“I won’t comment on the media reports, I can say they don’t affect the team,” said coach Vladan Milojevic. “The players and I are focused on the current competitions.”
Independent Vreme weekly pointed to a record of previous corruption in sport in Serbia.
“Match-fixing and money laundering sound familiar in Serbia,” it commented.
Serbian football in general and its two leading clubs – Red Star and Partizan Belgrade – have a nefarious reputation, however, whether the club are guilty in this instance remains to be seen.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits By Joseph McBrien)