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Unirea Urziceni – success can kill you

October 27, 2011 4 comments

They wrote history and now they’re history. The club that collected eight points in the Champions League’s group stage, a record by Romanian football’s not so high standards, has now disappeared, closed down by Dumitru Bucsaru, the ghostly owner who came out of the blue, borrowed a few millions and cashed out as soon as he made some profit. That’s football, these days, in Romania and everywhere else. Just business!

The rise

The club goes back to 1954, when it started life in the Romanian third tier back under the name Aurora Urziceni and never looked ambitious enough to survive at least one division above. Became Unirea Urziceni in 1984 and relegated to the fourth tier, so the Wolves’ first adventure in the second league only began in 2003, one year after a new company called Valahorum SA took over. It was the beginning of a beautiful and surprising adventure, as three years after that moment the small town was putting its name on the map of Liga I.

With under 20,000 souls, Urziceni looked like it was going to enjoy a year among the elite, as nobody could have anticipated that Dumitru Bucsaru, the mysterious businessman behind the club, had not just similar plans with the established clubs, but also the means to achieve them.

The heroes

The excellent Dan Petrescu had every reason to be disappointed when the Romanian Football Federation decided to name Razvan Lucescu as national team coach.

While still in the second division, Unirea Urziceni was regarded as a team close to Dinamo Bucharest, acting as one of the numerous unofficial feeder clubs of the former Militia’s team, from the communist regime. It was no surprise to hear that notorious agents Victor and Ioan ‘Giovani’ Becali were pulling the strings without an official involvement, but this helped the small club get good players and have an easy route towards the first division. Their presence also ensured that the former Romanian international Dan Petrescu will trust the project and embark as a coach with bigger powers than you’ll usually see in Romanian football, with the ex-Chelsea defender keen to make a name for himself as a coach and return to the best league in the world. Given the fact that he even named one of his daughters after the London based club, it was no surprise to hear talk of Romania’s Chelsea. Don’t be fooled, Bucsaru wasn’t there to buy his way to the top, spending massively on players, it was all about Petrescu’s workaholic approach and determination to implement all that he could have adapted from his experience with The Blues.

In fact, Unirea rarely spent sums that would draw attention, as Petrescu – with help from Mihai Stoica, who was in between jobs as Steaua’s director of football – was looking for bargains and players that could help him achieve immediate success. He went for team leaders (signed several former skippers of first division clubs), for established footballers close to their 30s, for guys who wanted to prove themselves once again. Released by Farul Constanta, a certain Iulian Apostol, “famous” for all sorts of accusations published by the press over the years, from being difficult, unprofessional and even linked with some fixed matches, was offered a chance by Petrescu and the little midfielder was so impressive that he soon became a solution even for the national team.

All the changes that took place within this small club were witnessed by one lucky guy: Nicu Epaminonda. The versatile defender managed to make the incredible voyage from the muddy pitches of the Romanian third tier to the grass tickled in midweek by the Champions League’s anthem, playing three matches in the group stage and collecting other four appearances in the Europa League. Now in his 30s, he’s defending the colors of FCM Targu Mures and struggling once again to avoid relegation…

The achievements

Although successful, Unirea was rarely entertaining, so there was a lot of deserved talk about Petrescu’s sublime tactical work, but also praise for the owner’s discretion, something so hard to find nowadays in the Romanian top fight. Sorry, top flight. Reports of the quiet Bucsaru emerged every once in a while, but they so rarely managed to answer the real questions. Who is this guy, actually? Where did he come from? We were going to find out later that Unirea’s boss had loaned around 10 million Euros from none other than Steaua’s owner, Gigi Becali (cousin of the two agents mentioned earlier). But there’s nothing harmful for the competitions when two opponents are involved in such a deal, right?

Wrong, as Steaua could have stopped Unirea from their title race at the very end, when playing away at Urziceni, but settled for a 1-1 draw stating that they’re happy as long as CFR Cluj doesn’t win another league title. Of course they were happy, but only because Unirea and Bucsaru were going to cash in on their Champions League adventure and pay back Becali…

The club needed three years to win the league, after a 10th place finish in the first season and a 5th place and a Romanian Cup final played in the second, and Romania’s Chelsea was going to have a chance to meet with the real one, in the group stage. (Un)Luckily, The Wolves were drawn against Rangers, FC Seville and VfB Stuttgart and managed to collect an impressive tally of eight points, playing their home games in Bucharest in front of crowds that were starting to feel proud and willing to learn how to love Petrescu’s boys.

“Heroes”, this is how Laszlo Boloni (former national team coach, currently in charge of PAOK) called them, after an incredible 4-1 win on Ibrox, two 1-1 draws at home against Stuttgart and the Scottish giants, and a 1-0 at home versus Seville, and a finish in third place only after a 1-3 defeat in Germany, in the last game of the group stage. Frustrated, but proud, the team was going to make another attempt to win the league and return to the biggest stage. Without spending anything on new players, Unirea was going to fail and Petrescu’s departure to Kuban, halfway through the following season, was the first important signal that not only the Champions League lights were going out for good. The owner was thinking already to pull the plug. Quietly, like he did everything else in football.

The fall

The club’s last season in the top flight has been a struggle and a horrific show. Bucsaru agreed to clear some of the debt towards Gigi Becali by allowing several key players to move to the Bucharest club. Others, unpaid for months by the man who had recently seen over 17 million Euros enter the club’s account from UEFA, asked the Professional Football League to have their deals interrupted and moved to other first division clubs. So much for the heroes, right? They were all replaced by youngsters taken on loan from Steaua and Dinamo, the clubs that had supported Unirea in different ways throughout this journey, who tried to give their best and avoid relegation, but the feeling was that, even in case of such a feat, this club was going to leave Liga I. It became clear in the spring that, once again, this team was aiming to surprise everyone, leaving not just the first division, but also Romanian football. For good.

Unpaid debt towards the state budget was going to draw the authorities’ intervention and in April anyone interested would have been able to buy the team’s massage tables, TV screens from inside the “Tineretului” stadium or even the two goals that had seen so much Liga I action in the past few years. Bucsaru had no reason to move a muscle. Does anyone think that the prize money from the Champions League was sent into the club’s bank account?

The villains

Thinking of Bucsaru? You shouldn’t. He came in, took advantage of all the financial freedom offered by a poorly organized and corruption-friendly football world, using somebody else’s money not just to build some notoriety, but also to make some profit. He has found both financial and sporting success and decided to retire while still on profit, in a perfect environment: a town unable to support a professional football club and a Romanian football willing to accept a fake Abramovich, as long as he’s honest enough to return the money borrowed from the Glazers.

And one lonely wolf

"The Lonely Wolf", looking for a new team, waiting for another miracle.

Regrets? Too few to mention. We already have another small club in the Champions League, Otelul fighting Manchester United, Benfica and Basel in the group stage, and a young coach, Dorinel Munteanu, none other the most capped player in Romania’s national team, who is trying to make a name for himself and return to his dream club, FC Koln.

Unirea left behind an excellent record and a story unlikely to be repeated soon, and just one disgruntled fan. The one man who followed the team everywhere, sitting often alone in the entire stand reserved for Unirea’s supporters, calling himself “The Lonely Wolf”, who stated that will start looking for another team to cheer for. The question is: does anyone think that, even if there was a full pack, things would have gone different for Unirea?

Ferguson’s praise – not everyone can handle it!

October 17, 2011 2 comments

Well, pretty much has been said regarding Otelul Galati ahead of the huge match against Manchester United, but let me take you back seven years, when the Red Devils were winning on the same stadium 2-1, against Dinamo Bucharest. At the press conference, asked to pick one of the home team’s players that impressed, Sir Alex Ferguson said “the left back”.

The left back was a 25 years old Romanian called Dorin Semeghin, who had moved to Dinamo from Foresta Suceava, after his home town club had managed to stun the Red Dogs by coming back from 0-4 to win 5-4 in Bucharest. Small, quick, gifted with a very good left foot and so attacking minded that he often forgot to defend, Semeghin was famous at that time for his off the pitch exploits rather than his outstanding performances in Liga I. Ferguson’s praise wasn’t going to help him either and he went on to be known as “Semeghin – spaima sticlelor de vin”, which rhymes in Romanian and means “Semeghin – the threat of the wine bottles” in English. He was playing for a red and white club and enjoying both types of wines probably came naturally…

“I now regret that I haven’t made good use of Sir Alex’s praise”, reckons Semeghin for Evenimentul Zilei, where he proudly spoke about the good start he enjoys with his new club, Rapid CFR Suceava. In the Romanian third tier! He recalls shaking the hand of the great manager and is proud to say that even though he didn’t chase any of the players after the two matches, he still managed to get two extremely valuable shirts: one from Ryan Giggs, the other from Paul Scholes.

“I haven’t tasted alcohol in five years, but you have to take my word for it”, says the little player, who is now 32 and heads towards retirement in the lower leagues, after 224 matches in Liga I, with around 60 of them played for none other than Otelul Galati. A team full of individuals that will try to impress in Tuesday’s match. Hopefully, Sir Alex Ferguson won’t praise anyone at the end of it!

Wesley Lopes, best foreign goalscorer in Romania

October 7, 2011 7 comments

Wesley celebrating on "Olimpico" alongside the man with the last pass, Adailton

The Brazilian ace needed just one goal to break the record established by the Albanese former international Sulejman Demollari, who had scored 36 goals in 100 matches played for Dinamo Bucharest between 1991 and 1995. Wesley scored a hattrick instead, in the 5-0 away win at CS Mioveni, doing all this in style, something he never lacked since his arrival in Romania two and a half years ago.

With 1,5 million Euros paid to Leixoes, FC Vaslui was making this one of the signings that were going to confirm the club’s intentions to keep on improving, aiming for matches in Europe, as well as internal trophies. So far, they only managed to break into the Europa League group stage, stunning Lazio on “Olimpico” with a 2-2 draw in which Wesley himself got both goals. But Vaslui, who every year managed to finish in a better position than in the previous season, look now only two steps away from the league title, after a 3rd spot well deserved in the previous campaign.

With Wesley flanked by Lucian Sanmartean and Adailton, behind a powerful lone striker like Mike Temwanjera, Vaslui certainly boasts the most powerful attack in Liga I and these guys have made up so far for an incredible amount of injuries that has affected the team’s defense. Games versus Lazio or Sparta Prague have shown that they can afford playing a 21 years old striker like Ionut Balaur at centre-back, yet avoid defeats, and the mentioned players also deserve praise for their approach and willingness to track back and give a hand in defense.

Wesley himself, as the team’s skipper, has been an example, but he certainly is of more help this season playing as a central attacking midfielder, after almost an entire year spent as a central midfielder with playmaking duties performed from deep, in a 4-2-3-1, a role that hasn’t kept him from netting an impressive 14 goals.

Still, it was a mistake the experienced coach Viorel Hizo found the strength to acknowledge and the Brazilian has now 7 goals in 9 Liga I matches, using to full service his exceptional eye for a goal, composure in front of the keeper, precise heading ability and simply amazing knowledge of attacking an empty space inside the box at just the right time.

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