November 18, 2001
IT may be happening in the relative obscurity of the NSW (New South Wales) Premier League, but the story of Mirko Jurilj's comeback from hell is one worth telling.
Now wearing the red and white of the Parramatta Eagles, Jurilj was earlier this year dressed in blue and white – the colours of the Singaporean jail where he was imprisoned for fixing soccer matches.
For 100 days between December and April, the one-time Sydney United star was behind bars serving time for a crime he says he never committed.
The Eagles sweeper witnessed bashings, had to beg to see a doctor when he was violently ill, and passed time by washing and ironing wardens' uniforms in a nine-to-five laundry shift.
He shared a cell with six other inmates in temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius.The room was lifeless apart from the sweaty bodies inside, with all personal possessions banned.
It was a time Jurilj wants to forget ... but knows he never will.
"It was depressing," says the Australian of prison, "but you learn to get on with it – you have no option. I finally realised the local guys (inmates) said the same thing to me. They also told me not to think too much and not to concentrate on the outside world.
"That helped a lot."
Jurilj's nightmare started on July 30 last year, when a peaceful afternoon with German player and room-mate Lutz Pfannenstiel was shattered by a knock on the door of his Singapore home.
Storming into the room were officers from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau with information both players had agreed to accept bribes to rig games. Jurilj, 28, vehemently denies fixing games involving his club team, Sembawang Rangers. "Before they took us away they checked the house for money," Jurilj said.
"Me and my mate were laughing. We were even telling them where to look: `Up there in the lights, see if you can find any there'.
"We knew we had nothing to worry about, that's why we were laughing ... but it wasn't funny later."
The raid came after a tip-off from a bookmaker, who had been arrested and had named the pair during questioning.
Jurilj insists he only knew of the bookie as a freelance golf instructor, who occasionally asked for a tip on soccer games.
Jurilj and Pfannenstiel were interrogated for more than 40 hours, in separate rooms, before a panicked Jurilj signed a confession he claims he was promised would see him set free. The confession brought him undone in court, however, when it blew away his plea of innocence.
The judge's guilty verdict reduced Jurilj to tears and saw him escorted to prison to serve a five-month jail term.
The Sydney United junior, with six years' football experience in Southeast Asia, was the first foreigner to be charged with match-fixing in Singapore since former Socceroo striker Abbas Saad in 1995.
"I just couldn't believe it – what was I guilty of?" Jurilj said. "They even proved in court that the match wasn't influenced, nor did we take money – not a single cent. So how does that add up to be match-fixing? The only thing that prevented me from winning that case was a statement I signed, but that statement was induced with promises and threats."
Jurilj was released after serving 100 days of his sentence, but his contract with Sembawang was torn up and he was banned for life by the Singapore Football Association, which also tried to have him suspended worldwide.
Soccer's head body, FIFA, rejected a life ban and gave Jurilj a one-year suspension effective from when he was charged in August 2000. Jurilj says he would fight to clear his name with FIFA, but court cases already have cost him and his family more than A$120,000.
His recent games for Parramatta against represented another small step forward.
"Prison makes you grow up quicker," Jurilj said. "You appreciate things more than you used to. I'm just going out there to enjoy myself."