The president of the Serbian football federation (FSS) has resigned his position two days before the national team kicks off its new World Cup qualifying campaign with a home game against Ireland amid allegations he has had close links with a group accused of kidnapping and murder.
Slavisa Kokeza, previously a close ally of state president Aleksandar Vucic, was arrested at the end of last month after a round up of several leaders of a group of Partizan Belgrade ultras. Among the allegations against them was a suggestion that they had kidnapped rivals fans, tortured, and then murdered them at the club's stadium.
Kokeza, who played at less well known clubs, is a former board member at Partizan's main Belgrade rivals, Red Star, where current Serbia manager, Dragan Stojkovic, was both a player and later club president, with the now national team coach also having spent four years as present of the FSS.
It is claimed that the group of Partizan ultras had been involved in a plot to kill Vucic, himself a Red Star supporter, and though Kokeza denied any involvement, local journalists were apparently briefed by senior government sources that he had been uncooperative with the police investigation.
The story has dragged on in the weeks since and Kokeza, who is reported to have protested the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (now serving life imprisonment for war crimes) at the time, announced on Monday that he was stepping down from the position at the FSS that he had held since May 2016 in order to clear his name.
In a letter announcing his decision, Kokeza said that he wanted to give the national team the “necessary peace and stability” as they prepare to take on Ireland, Portugal and Azerbaijan in the space of a week, three games that will go a long way towards deciding whether Serbia qualifies for the next World Cup.
The 43-year-old described the claim that he had had any knowledge of the plot to kill Vucic as “dangerous lies”. It has previously been alleged that he and his businesses had benefited substantially from the political patronage that his relationship with the president, who was formally prime minister, had brought.
Suggestions of links between far right supporters’ groups and criminality in Serbia are nothing new but the level of brutality allegedly involved in this instance is remarkable. The resignation will cast quite a political shadow over Wednesday’s game, although there was no suggestion on Monday of it having any impact on the team’s preparations for the Ireland game
James McClean was among the Ireland squad that travelled to Belgrade for it after the players trained earlier in the day in Manchester.
The extent of the Stoke City player’s involvement in Wednesday night’s first game of the new World Cup qualifying campaign remains in doubt but news that he had travelled may well have surprised his club manager Michael O’Neill, who clearly suggested at the weekend that he did not believe the 31-year-old would get past an initial assessment by the FAI’s medical staff.
His take contrasted with that of Brighton boss Graham Potter who told the media after leaving Aaron Connolly out of his squad for the win over Newcastle at the weekend that the spell away with Ireland would be good for both the striker and his club.
“He has just had a couple of days training so we did not want to rush him back,” Potter said. “He needed more time. He will available for the Irish national team and I think that will be good for him.
“I felt he needed a few more days training before he was available for the bench and I think he will get that when he goes away with the national team. That is good for us and it is good for him.”
With Conor Coventry promoted to the senior squad from the under-21s, meanwhile, and a couple of others withdrawing from his group for the Wales game on Friday, Jim Crawford was forced to draft in replacements.
Luca Connell, currently on loan at Queen's Park from Celtic, as well as Stoke City's Ethon Varian and Norwich City goalkeeper Sam Blair will all join up with the Under-21 squad after Dan Rose and Ademipo Odubeko withdrew.
Rose, the former Everton youth goalkeeper who now plays for Schalke 04, is unable to travel because of German restrictions related to coronavirus while the FAI says that it has agreed with a request from West Ham that Odubeko be allowed to stay in London.
“He will remain with his club for the international window having only recently returned from injury and, as a result of his busy training and match schedule of late, both parties agreed that it would be beneficial for him to continue working with his club at this time,” said the association in a statement.