Just to prove that “I told you so”, here’s a link on a piece I wrote back in January. Steaua’s U19 and U17 teams were coming after heavy defeats suffered at the hands of Hagi’s Academy and nobody at the club seemed preoccupied about the fact that, in 8 months time, the club’s work at youth level will be exposed in the UEFA Youth League. A competition that’s supposed to act as a platform for young talents, offering them a chance to gain invaluable experience and impress on the European stage, but not for the Romanian champions, who decided years ago that there’s no point in running a decent academy when the owner is rich enough to sign basically any young prospect that makes his way in the top flight and looks promising enough.
Well, the 8 months went by quickly and when the club realized that its’ image is at stake in the little brother of the Champions League, worked on an emergency plan. The management struck a deal with Gheorghe Hagi, who cannot hide his affection for the Bucharest club, and a one year long loan deal involving 6 of his players was agreed. The solution will certainly help the team trained by Ion Toma, but the young coach (who made a name for himself and got this contract after impressing in a highschool competition) is realistic enough to keep the expectation level extremely low: “We cannot kid ourselves, our goal is not to get thrashed, to avoid embarrassment.”
Toma isn’t that confident that the injection of quality from Hagi’s Academy can boost Steaua’s chances to do well against the likes of Chelsea, Schalke or FC Basel, but, in truth, he does get some promising faces under his command. Alexandru Tarnovan and Ionut Mitrita have already some first league appearances with Viitorul and, for me, take a big risk by giving up the chance to feature in more senior games this term, in Liga I, in exchange for six appearances in the UEFA Youth League. For their sake, the loan deal will allow them to return to Viitorul in the winter, as playing senior football at this age is vital for their development. Also, Robert Hodorogea and Bogdan Vasile are U19 Romanian internationals, and look consistent and reliable, qualities you don’t see that often in (Romanian) players of their age. Steaua also loaned from Targu Mures another good prospect, Razvan Stoica, while in goal they can count on Valentin Cojocaru, who has been training for a while with the senior team and looked close to a deal with Liverpool, not so long ago.
Still, Steaua’s U19 coach speaks from experience, as he has struggled to make his U19 team click in the previous season and now has little time to make this lot play as a unit. Maybe the help promised by Laurentiu Reghecampf, who will try to pass on his methods and also worke twice a week with the youngsters, can make the difference. Or, better said, can save face. I doubt that a club who has paid so little attention to its youth setup for so many years can trick teams who treated seriously the work in this sector, with just a little help from Hagi, who just found another purpose to his young Academy. Viitorul can even relegate from Liga I – it will qualify every year for the UEFA Youth League
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.