Strange headline for a strange situation, which was a perfect fit though for Liga 1, the championship with the biggest percentage of club owners in trouble with the law. The league where public money is used in competition with private money, but both types enter the circuit of the sport “where you cannot make a profit” with this very purpose. But that is another, longer story. :)
Back to the one behind the headline: on Sunday evening, Romanian multiple (running and most likley future) champions had to take drastic measures, following a lost lawsuit. The name, the biggest name in Romanian club football, the European Cup winners from 1986, Hagi’s former and beloved team, cannot be used
anymore for now without the approval of the former owner of Steaua Bucharest. The name was erased from the scoreboard of the stadium that hosted the 1-0 victory against CSMS Iasi. A square represented the current league leaders who are on another solitary run towards the title, while the name and the logo were erased from the players’ shirts, the dugout and any other visible place it stood before a Romanian court reached a shocking, but fair decision.
Gigi Becali might have took over the famous club and its huge fan pool through some dodgy maneuvers, but after more than a decade of use the Ministery of Defence finally managed to throw back a punch. It might not be a knock-out, but it surely is a knock-down. It might have angered some fans, but there’s a sense of justice behind it. Steaua’s past, glorious, but often built through unsporting measures under the communist regime, came back to haunt the club now ran from behind bars by its owner, Becali, and sporting director, Stoica, both unable to fuel the type of massive scandal that was expected by such a bold call. They and those within the club are now in an extremely delicate situation. If they’ve took this measure in Liga 1 to avoid further punishment, they are now in a race against the clock to find a solution. No later than Thursday evening, Dynamo Kyiv is coming to Bucharest in the Europa League and I’m sure they (and UEFA) would surely like to know the name of the team they’re playing against…
UPDATE: After a meeting that took place on Monday afternoon, Becali’s club has been granted the right to use the name and the logo for the last two official matches of 2014. Negotiations are expected to take place at the start of next year, with the Ministry of Defense hoping to make Gigi Becali pay an important sum to continue to use the brand.
The champions have started in style. No worries in Liga 1, where Claudiu Keseru managed to score six in one game (in theory, Pandurii is one of the decent clubs, but in practice they often try not to upset a top business partner like Steaua) and very few teams will be able to pose a real threat during the current campaign. On the European stage, all going as planned so far and the red and blue outfit are 90 minutes away from another profitable presence in the Champions League group stage, having already a one goal advantage over Ludogorets, thanks to their top performer, Alexandru Chipciu.
So, results are here right away, in spite of the lack of experience of Costel Galca, money isn’t a problem, the fans are behind the team (all over the country). All seems well, especially as in a dozen lines I didn’t mention Gigi Becali. But, oops!, the name is here now, yet the man is still behind bars (alongside his right hand Mihai Stoica), and the problem that could affect Steaua’s promising season arises.
Not only Becali took out of the club’s account a big chunk of the over 10 millions euros profit registered last season, but he also kept a firm grip on the club, seriously restricting Steaua’s movement on the transfer market, where important departures (past or imminent – Tanase and Latovlevici have been repeatedly linked with foreign clubs) need(ed) to be adressed.
The problem is that the club’s structure is poor, it also only exists to approve and execute the owner’s wishes and Steaua’s view of the market is as narrow as the space between two bars. Without Stoica, there’s nobody both informed and confident enough to take an unknown name to Becali, so the club’s recent targets have been only current or past Liga 1 players.
Of the team that battled it out with the likes of Chelsea or Schalke, a handful of key players are gone. With Tatarusanu (Fiorentina), Chiriches (Tottenham), Gardos (Southampton), Bourceanu (Trabzonspor) and Pintilii (Al Hilal), the very backbone of the team was extracted and, in spite of all the income, Steaua failed to add players with either similar quality or at least potential. But the reason isn’t just the reluctance to spend some money. In fact, the Bucharest outfit went after players of proven value, but in the only league Becali knew: the Romanian first division. A league that had already offered its best products to the club in recent years, a league that struggles to produce new talent at a good rate.
That’s why Steaua signed Arlauskis (former league winner with Unirea Urziceni), Luchin (former Dinamo Bucharest player, signed from Botev Plovdiv), Breeveld (Pandurii) and Lemnaru (Universitatea Cluj, a player Galca doesn’t even like). And that is the only reason why the club makes no secret in its intention to bring back to Liga 1 Jeremy Bokila, a striker who impressed with Petrolul, before moving to Terek Groznii. He’s the main and last target once/if the Champions League group stage is reached, although he’s been a flop in Russia and, more importantly, Terek can afford to speculate Steaua’s desperate approach and ask for a lot of money (approx 2 million euros) for a fringe player.
Steaua is definitely weaker than last season, although Galca does some good work on the training pitch, yet the downfall of the solid team lead to important success by Laurentiu Reghecampf might not catch the eye that quickly. The group stage of the Champions League is only 90 minutes away, while the route to another league title remains accessible. A defeat (with the wrong scoreline) in Bulgaria could expose though the fact that Becali was wrong to take away from his club exactly what he’s missing the most: the freedom. The freedom to move, to dare, to act.
Undefeated in the league after 14 matches, Steaua’s situation might not look that bad from a distance, in spite of the club’s failure to impress in a Champions League group they’ve entered with high hopes. Still, the club is in a bad period and both the team’s performancea and results confirm it: Steaua struggles to win matches. In Liga 1, it happened last on October 27 (4 consecutive draws followed). In the Champions League, it never happened. Of course, an optimistic approach would be to note the fact that Reghecampf’s men are also hard to beat, with the last defeat dated on the first day on October, a 0-4 at home against Chelsea, but the Bucharest side is starting to look worried. The arrogance is gone and the horrible performance of the referee that helped Steaua earn a point away at Otelul last Sunday means the club is taking measures. Not the right ones, in my opinion, and this was the last thing we needed in a league that’s going from bad to worse each year…
Steaua’s recent decline, one than can be stopped quickly, with some good calls and some money spent during a winter break, but only if the club identifies its’ real issues and finds the right solutions:
- The team is weaker than last season: the departures of Chiriches and Rusescu, the long term injury of Chipciu and the fitness problems of Pintilii meant an obvious lack of quality, which wasn’t addressed through a clever transfer activity.
- Poor summer mercato. Steaua cashed in big on the above mentioned players, nailed a huge income from the Champions League, yet refused to spend enough and, in consequence, failed to invest properly to strengthen the team. Signing Pantelis Kapetanos, a striker the club had released on a free, without a second thought, a few years ago, was a stunning decision, just as spending around 1 million euro for Vaslui’s Fernando Varela, a defender signed to replace Chiriches, but who fails to even bother Florin Gardos, who stepped in admirably to partner Lukasz Szukala.
- Poor quality upfront – no wonder Steaua’s hard to beat, but struggles to win games, at the same time. There’s been some recent praise for Federico Piovaccari, but the striker loaned from Sampdoria has only 6 goals in Liga 1 and 1 in the Champions League. Behind him, usually operate Tanase, Stanciu and Popa, who netted… 7 times in Liga 1. Steaua desperately need Chipciu to regain his match fitness, but will also need to replace the likes of Kapetanos and Tatu with some real football players…
- Lack of hunger in most of the key players, who only think about their next move. Tatarusanu, the goalkeeper, Bourceanu, the captain, Georgevski, the regular right back, are entering the last six months of their current deals and they’re not going to stay. In turn, Steaua convinced Tanase to extend his deal, instead of finding a buyer for him and the inconsistent Latovlevici, as both players have reached a limit they obviously cannot break.
- There’s no more bad cop / good cop work within the club, with the owner still behind bars and the manager, Mihai Stoica, unable to be the good guy who can solve the players’ problems and ask from them to give back more, in return.
Five rounds before the end of the season and during the weekend that most of Romania celebrates Easter – obviously, a sign from God for Gigi Becali – Steaua is crowned champion once again, after a very long wait, a period which exposed all the faults of Becali’s dictatorial regime. Nothing radical changed in his hands-on and loud approach, it was just one of those years when everything fell into place.
Steaua’s spine became finally strong enough. From the keeper Tatarusanu, through the complementary pair of defenders, Szukala (great in the air) – Chiriches (excellent on the ground), the warrior-captain Bourceanu and to the free scoring Rusescu, finding the ideal eleven was always easy for Laurentiu Reghecampf. Nevermind the problems at right back, the poor form of Tanase or the struggle to identify a reliable centre-forward, with Latovlevici’s energy from left back, Pintilii’s discipline in central midfield and Chipciu’s quick runs from the second line of attack, there was always too much quality for a mediocre competition like Liga 1. And for those who doubted and argued, biased or not, Steaua delivered in Europe beyond expectations.
I remember one of Reghecampf’s first games as a coach, as he came to Ploiesti with FC Snagov for a match in the 2nd division. Someone else was officially in charge of the team, but everyone knew that Steaua’s and the national team’s former right back was running things. So, at the end of the game, when he gathered around all the players on the pitch and sent them for a few laps, he was the one who had to deal with the irony of the few fans that stayed behind. “You should have made them run before the final whistle!”, they shouted, but the young coach didn’t answer then. He did it in the following years, helping Concordia Chiajna pull out a miracle and avoid relegation in the second half of the previous season, but also during his first campaign in charge of Romania’s best supported club. Because his players do run. And, if this can be assigned to his German fitness coach, nobody can deny that the team is well organized, moves the ball quickly, knows how to react when cornered and can interpret different tactics and scenarios because of him. Besides that, he won quickly the affection of fans and players and, even more important, had the needed diplomacy to deal with Becali’s changing mood and hands-on approach.
He might be hugely unpopular among the fans of every other team in the country, but a lot of them would secretly want someone like Steaua’s Mihai Stoica in their club. His return to the Bucharest club – although he once said that he’d rather live on the streets, like a bum, than work again with Gigi Becali – has ensured the following: the team and the coach had protection from the owner’s often brutal intrusions, as well as the attacks coming from the opposition and some of the journos. “Becali’s little brother” has seen the job done and his presence has surely influenced the club’s performance and results this season, for which he was ready to go all the way. At times, way beyond the boundaries of respect, fair play, common sense. Outrageous for the rival fans and neutral spectators, admirable for Steaua’s supporters, MM’s behavior spearheaded and eventually won the psychological battle that goes on during a season…
Speaking of arrogance and offensive behavior, the club was quick to announce years of domination in Romanian football, but, for the good of the game, the level of the league will somehow manage to rise again at a decent level. This season, it was all too easy, with Dinamo and Rapid tormented by changes and financial struggle, CFR Cluj focused only on Europe and mediocre in Liga 1 and Vaslui without direction and the usual ambition from their wealthy owner. Plus, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty at the moment for the new champions: Becali’s yet to decide if it’s wise to cash in on some names or really go for it in the Champions League; Reghecampf has impressed and wants to play hard ball with Becali, having offers from abroad on stand-by; a number of key players (Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Latovlevici, Bourceanu, Rusescu) are on the shortlist of better clubs for some time now; the recent appointment of Daniel Stanciu in the club has fueled the not so silent war going on when it comes to selling and buying new players.
This final point could be the cause for more harm to Steaua than any other Romanian club could produce next season, but at the same time this state of alert, the constant tension can lead to good things. Keeping in mind that everyone involved in it keeps the club’s best interest above their own. Which, to be honest, rarely happens, and not only in football…
Everything’s going great for the Bucharest side: spending the winter break with a 12 points advantage over FC Vaslui, the closest serious title contender, dreaming of a double against Chelsea in the Europa League – stupid mind games played with Ajax, their first and most likely last opponent to meet in Europe, this spring -, and playing around with their top players’ transfer fees, in deals with little chances to go through during the current mercato.
Thanks to a quality roster that once again forms the back-bone of Romania’s national team and a young coach, Laurentiu Reghecampf, that got almost everything right in an excellent 2012, Steaua has every right to feel confident of winning their 24th title and the ultimate goal: playing once again Champions League football. Of course, preliminary rounds await, but UEFA’s prize money seem again in reach and nothing can Gigi Becali happier.
Well, UEFA has also prepared a surprise for the 2013/2014 edition and it’s not a pleasant one for Steaua. The UEFA Youth League, a competition that will offer the 32 clubs qualified for the Champions League group stage the chance to line-up their U19 teams for a European competition, will force the red and blue outfit to think again about investing some money in their youth setup. Becali himself stopped financing properly this vital area of the club some years ago, thinking that he can afford to sign basically every promising Romanian player that might come through. He was right, as Steaua bought indeed most of the hot prospects that proved themselves at smaller clubs in the first division, and the recent transfer of 18 years old Gabriel Iancu – the first important name to come out of Gheorghe Hagi’s Academy – underlines Becali’s financial strength, at least by Romanian standards.
In fact, it’s the man’s problem if he wants to spend more on players raised by others rather than investing less money and developing talent at his own club, but now Steaua could be in a difficult spot, as the club’s image will be at stake in the UEFA Youth League too, not just the Champions League. Not to mention that this competition could also be used to advertise and sale young talent…
I’ve watched Steaua’s U19 and U17 teams recently, outplayed and outscored by arguably the best Romanian club at youth level, Hagi’s Academy. Viitorul Constanta won 7-2 at U19 level and 4-0 at U17 level at the end of September and I felt it made no sense taking notes on more than two players from the visiting team. The teams are a mess and on such short term Steaua has no other option than to sign some talented youngsters in the summer, at least for the U19 squad. In fact, we could see the club change again its’ strategy, but I recall the last massive campaign of signing youngsters. It happened some years ago and Steaua signed a dozen youth internationals in a very short time, hoping to raise them properly in the reserve team and promote them in the top flight. Not a single one made it, with some promising careers destroyed by poor work and lack of interest at that time. A sign that Becali might have the cash, but surely lacks something vital at this level: patience and know-how.
After an impressive second half of the season with Concordia Chiajna, who managed to escape relegation under Reghecampf’s command, the young coach got the chance he was craving for: was offered the chance to take over the club he used to play for before moving to 1.Bundesliga and he took it with both hands. A one season long deal was signed a couple of days ago and he was already asked by Becali to lead the standings by 15 points halfway through the next season. A joke, of course, but one that Reghe should take very seriously…
Reghecampf follows Mihai Stoichita, his former coach, who stepped down as initially agreed, with Europa League football on the cards in the following campaign, after Steaua finished the league in third place, missing out both on the title and on the second placed that offered a ticket for the Champions League’s preliminary rounds.
It sounds quite bad, but actually Reghecampf steps in at a good moment. After recent investment, which brought the likes of Chiriches, Parvulescu and Chipciu to Ghencea – some of the brightest new & proven faces in Liga I -, Steaua has a big squad with plenty of quality players to choose from. The team needs mainly to find the right balance + to solve some problems at right back, in central midfield (where there’s a need for a creative player) and in goal, where Ciprian Tatarusanu either needs some serious competition or even a replacement, after an unconvincing campaign, not only in terms of performances, but mainly in terms of focus and determination.
Of course, the biggest problem isn’t related to the quality of the team available, but the constant interference of the vocal owner, who continues to undermine his investment, year after year. Making a wedding after a convincing win and a funeral after each defeat has seriously affected Steaua’s results in recent years and will probably have the same effect in the following season. It’s enough to have a look at Reghecampf’s record as a coach and see that so far he never stayed put in one place and completing a season with one team is a challenge for him even in a more quite environment. Add to that the huge pressure of the fans and owner and it’s very difficult to see the young coach staying in charge for the entire duration of his otherwise very short deal…
In 2008, Steaua needed a favorable result in Universitatea Cluj – CFR Cluj and the club’s owner, Gigi Becali, sent 1,7 million euros in a suitcase to Cluj, to offer extra motivation to the home team. Teia Sponte, one of Steaua’s officials, was caught with the valuable package and Becali ended up in jail for a couple of weeks, before being released and judged as a free man for almost four years. Accused of trying to bribe players, he defended himself by saying it was a reward, that it was money which would have lead to a better performance from a team, and after a very long trial he was recently declared innocent alongside all the others involved in the case. Among them, the current national team coach, Victor Piturca.
Of course, the story got a lot of coverage in the Romanian media and I’ll make an exception this time – as you noticed, I’m trying to stay away from all these extra-football stories here and focus on the game – because there is one angle all the journalists have missed. In 2008, when everyone came to court to answer the prosecutors’ questions, Piturca (among others) defended Becali when he was denying the accusations, and said that the suitcase wasn’t sent there to influence the result of the above mentioned match, but as payment for some real estate deal Becali was doing in Cluj. Is it only my impression that Piturca lied under oath? And, I’m not very good at this ;-), but isn’t it a crime to do so? I mean, in a normal, civilized country, not Romania…