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.
In a weekend packed with derbies all over Europe, Liga 1 offers Steaua – CFR Cluj, the battle of the main title contenders and of the only two Romanian clubs that have made it in to the group stage of European competitions.
With four points after two rounds, Steaua has made a bright start in Europa League, even though luck was on the team’s side both in Stuttgart and, more recently, at home against a stubborn and well organized FC Copenhagen. Coach Laurentiu Reghecampf deserves credit though for ignoring the the owner’s call for full focus on the title challenge (and that’s always a suicidal approach…) and so far has done a great job in both competitions, as we are also talking of the current Liga 1 leaders.
CFR on the other hand has three valuable points in the Champions League, after the games versus Sporting Braga and Manchester United, and waits for the double versus Galatasaray that will shape the club’s future in Europe. The problem in Liga 1 is that the reigning champions have lost a lot of players and a lot of points already and a defeat on Sunday night would leave them 12 points off the top spot after only 11 rounds. A huge difference considering the poor opposition Steaua encountered so far in the league! As well as the mediocre displays from the likes of Vaslui, Dinamo and Rapid, Teams that in theory should prevent an early break-away from such a serious title contender.
It will be an interesting encounter between a team that likes to attack in numbers and put a lot of pressure in the opposition’s half and one that has struggles to win midfield battles in Liga 1 so far and dictate play, but is a master of counter-attacking football. A tactics that has suffered a blow as the very quick Moudou Sougou has just been added to a long list of casualties, while Steaua can not only be proud with the excellent fitness levels, but also with a total lack of injured players and a strong competition for a starting place all over the pitch.
The Bucharest side seems to have the edge in what looks like a final for CFR, being fitter, hungrier and more determined than the Cluj side, so we should be in for a rare piece of entertainment, also considering the tens of thousand fans that will be once again behind Reghecampf’s men in the National Arena.
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…
Do look again at the provisional standings after 10 games from the second half of the season! The team in second place, proudly representing a village with just over 8.000 souls, had 10 points after 17 rounds and was looking destined to get back to the second division. Not a lot of people was going to miss Concordia Chiajna, but a few months later now a lot of people would like to come across what has become one of the most effective teams in Liga I…
The club that runs on the Local Council’s money and under the direct command of the village’s mayor Mircea Minea made the right call last December, when Laurentiu Dinita was replaced by Laurentiu Reghecampf, who came along with his wife, Anamaria Prodan, who works as a FIFA agent. The squad suffered massive changes, with 13 players released and 15 brought to try and help the club avoid relegation, 7 of them coming from the second division outfit FC Snagov – one of the clubs Reghecampf had worked for as a coach in the past.
Among them was a certain Idan Baruch, a goalkeeper that offered a terrible and very dubious display versus FC Vaslui, in the second official game of the year, a match that made everyone think that Concordia’s players will only try to make some money before they leave the top flight.
That match was followed though by an excellent run of 4 wins and 1 draw in 5 games, including another incredible result (4-3 away at Petrolul, after being 1-3 down, with three goals scored in the final six minutes!), before the green and white outfit suffered the second defeat of the year against Dinamo. Immediately, they were back among the “relegation favorites”, but six days later another huge result came along and lifted them above the line: a 4-2 away win against now former league leaders CFR Cluj! Before Steaua’s visit to the small stadium just outside Bucharest, Concordia can collect 6 other vital points, versus Vointa Sibiu and CS Mioveni, and Reghecampf could welcome the team he’s already been linked with from an excellent and totally unexpected position…
Reghe, the coach
With a career that saw him leave Steaua after three years and move to Germany, where he played for Energie Cottbus, Alemannia Aachen and FC Kaiserslautern, Reghecampf had two spells as a coach with both FC Snagov and Universitatea Craiova (which he helped once avoid relegation) and a short one with Gloria Bistrita, but for some reason he always failed to stay put in one place, in spite of some promising results. He’s now linked with Steaua Bucharest, but it would be a mistake to pay too much attention to Gigi Becali’s daily TV appearances, although the 37 years old is definitely aiming higher and, if he ends this season above the line, it would be a small miracle that could get him either a good move in the near future or at least buy him a lot more time at his next club.
Who are the new stars?
With eight goals between them, Brazilian forwards Alex (21 years old) and Adi Rocha (26 years old) have impressed in their first matches in Liga I, adding pace and the skill that’s still missing among the rest of the team lead by Vlad Munteanu, a wide midfielder (now 31 years old), who spent the past six seasons in the Bundesliga (with a short spell to Auxerre, in 2008), playing for the likes of Energie Cottbus (just like his coach), Wolfsburg, Arminia Bielefeld and FSV Frankfurt. The team’s captain is Iulian Mamele, a 27 years old central defender playing his first season in the top flight, but one of the nicest surprises comes from 24 years old right winger Adrian Popa, who under Reghecampf scored 2 goals and offered 4 assists, drawing quickly the interest of title-chasing clubs like FC Vaslui.