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The incomplete preview for the next season of Romanian football

July 8, 2017 2 comments

The season starts on July 15. The transfer period closes on September 4, so we can expect still plenty of action on the market. There will be an almost 3 months long winter break, in which normally other massive changes of personnel take place. The number of points gained during the regular season will be cut in half, so the playoffs can see the Top 6 making the final sprint in a totally different shape than anyone could realistically anticipate at this point. That’s why it makes more sense to just have a look at how the best equipped and most ambitious clubs will line up at the start of Liga 1’s 100th edition…

FCSB (the club formerly known as Steaua):

Having lost the two championships played under the current format, a third defeat looks catastrophic. But feeling sympathetic towards Gigi Becali just doesn’t sound right, in spite of his willingness to spend money in the market. He’s doing it without fully relying on professional advice and his judgment is often clouded by pride, arrogance and an over-confidence in his football knowledge. He has the power to get every (half of) year almost everything he wishes, from the best Romanian prospects to the consistent performers in Liga 1, but more often will weaken one of his rivals than strengthen his club or prove the right fit for his team. His current team is very strong in midfield and attack, has a long bench, but the defensive options are mediocre. He also went for a new coach, but the general feeling is that the team’s former no 10 Nicolae Dica was chosen more for his obedience than his innovative ideas or coaching record. Still, expect FCSB to go all the way, the team is strong and can become even stronger, although some doubts about Becali’s coaching ability should persist 🙂

Champion with Unirea Urziceni, Petrescu returns to Romania after some odd and unsuccessful spells abroad.

CFR Cluj:

A new ownership, strong investment to clear debt and massively overhaul the squad and the signing of a proven coach like Dan Petrescu surely turn once again CFR into a serious title contender. This is the club FCSB should / will fear the most. Petrescu knows exactly what he’s doing and what he needs, while the board has a proven record and a broad perspective over the market. They’ve already signed a dozen of new players, yes, there will be a lack of cohesion in the first part of the season, but if things go right, in a couple of months CFR will look a lot like Unirea Urziceni: a very experienced outfit, very well balanced, whose main assets will be mental, tactical and physical. At this point, I’d tip them to become a dominant team and wouldn’t be surprised to force FCSB into another handicap start in the play-offs.

Dinamo:

Contra’s arrival just before the start of last season’s playoffs produce an incredible effect, but it was all down to the former international’s excellent motivational ability. It will take more than that to really challenge for more than a place in Europe, mostly because Dinamo’s has a rather minimalistic approach on the market. The ownership’s reluctance to spend on transfer fees and big(ger) salaries is well-known, so the feeling is that Contra, who lost two key players already in Dielna and Palic, will have to perform miracles to mount a title challenge, unless re-enforcement is on the way.

CSU Craiova:

There’s a new, intriguing name on the bench: Devis Mangia. A new stadium should be completed within a year and Craiova – who rely on a passionate fan base – could get a major boost right before the play-offs. All the important players have stayed put so far – although the likes of Ivan and Baluta have the potential to attract bids – some interesting additions like Roman and Barbut came in, but the squad still feels too light to go all the way.

Viitorul:

Last season’s champions have surprised with the addition of some very experienced players, but hopefully Hagi won’t turn his kindergarten into a retirement house. He’s surely hoping that this strategy will help him make a good start in Europe, as the important clubs seem to remain reluctant in submitting the kind of bids he was expecting for hot prospects like Coman or Nedelcu, after their displays in Liga 1. It’s going to be almost impossible to repeat last season’s feat, but an European spot remains on the cards and in Hagi’s plans for the campaign set to start on July 15.

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Unirea Urziceni – success can kill you

October 27, 2011 5 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?

Unirea Urziceni no longer exists as a club!

Yes, the mighty Unirea Urziceni. The team that progressed from third division to the Champions League (with defender Epaminonda Nicu playing at all levels!) to record the highest number of points collected in the group stage by a Romanian team has officially retired from all competitions. Basically, the team that was defeating Rangers at Ibrox with an incredible 4-1 and collected eight points in a group that also featured Seville and Vfb Stuttgart, has ceased to exist. Most likey, it will not be missed, as the team that once thrived under the strict command of former Chelsea man Dan Petrescu rarely had a sold out stadium in the 20,000 souls town of Urziceni. Unirea has every chance to be remembered, though, so here, here and here are a few pieces of mine for those willing to take one more look at the club’s good old days…

Meet "The lonely wolf", Unirea's most devoted fan, who should start looking for another club to support...

Arsenal, Galatasaray, Liverpool, Napoli, Udinese? No, Traore goes to Kuban Krasnodar!

February 6, 2011 2 comments

According to Prosport, the Ivorian forward left CFR’s training camp and went to Spain, to undergo a medical and, unless the problems he had when he took the last test will catch the doctors’ attention, Traore is expected to seal a surprising deal, indeed.

Linked with a lot of European clubs for more than a year, he was facing another six months in Cluj, where he more than once said and showed with his behaviour that he’s not willing to stay. There was only interest from England and Italy, but the reluctance to splash at least four million Euros was understandable, given the player’s lack of maturity and need for a smaller next step. It seems that both his club and agent felt the same way and everyone agreed to take up on Kuban’s offer: 4 million Euros upfront + 1 million Euros in June + 10% of the player’s next transfer.

It’s interesting to hear that Dan Petrescu, a coach who knew Traore very well, had nothing to say in this case, according to Ioan Becali, but it makes sense, as SuperDan had been denied the signing of Iulian Apostol, a month ago, even if he was coming as a free player. Knowing Petrescu, even if we’re talking about one of Europe’s hot prospects, I’m quite sure he won’t take this situation lightly and I’m expecting a move away from Krasnodar, at the first opportunity…

Who wants a coach like Dan Petrescu? Well, who doesn’t?

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

His decision to leave Unirea Urziceni, after he managed to break Romania’s record of points collected by a club in the Champions League’s groups stage and ahead of a challenging double with Liverpool, was considered at least strange. And certainly money-orientated, as Kuban Krasnodar was ready to spend millions on wages and transfers, in its attempt to achieve promotion in Russia’s first division. My bet is that Petrescu knew what was going to happen to Unirea, felt disappointed by the Ferderation’s choice to appoint Razvan Lucescu in charge and would have have had a difficult time topping what he achieved with a small club, if he was to take over another Romanian team.

SuperDan, a top coach not just by Romanian standards. Photo from sportingnews.ro

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Unirea Urziceni’s success story: how to make profit with a small football club

August 15, 2010 3 comments

The club’s discrete owner, Dumitru Bucsaru, earned over 20 million Euros since Unirea reached the Champions League’s group stage, in 2009. Why would he let the team fall apart then? Well, because he wouldn’t be able to dribble past the football’s rules one more time and make this kind of money with minimum investment and a club that lacks a proper stadium, a decent fan base and the vital revenue streams that keeps the ball spinning these days.

Unpaid players for months, lost chance to reach Champions League’s group stage, no money to re-establish order in a team everyone wants to abandon, starting with the general manager, Mihai Stoica, who already resigned. Not a pretty picture, that’s why we should look back and realize what this club has achieved and that this is just the ugly ending of a beautiful story. One that saw Unirea Urziceni move from the muddy 3rd division football to the glamour of Champions League in just six years, where the Wolves collected an impressive tally of 8 points in the same group with Seville, VFB Stuttgart and Glasgow Rangers – a record for Romanian football.

Unirea's 7.000 seats stadium, the venue that hosted a match against SV Hamburg, but couldn't qualify for the Champions League

Could all this have been done without massive investment in the team, could such a feat ignore year after year vital revenue streams like TV rights money, high gate receipts, numerous season tickets holders and the on and off matchday fans’ financial support? Affirmative! Read more…

The sheiks can relax: money still makes the difference in football

August 5, 2010 1 comment

Spalletti’s Zenit Sankt Petersburg had to desperately defend in the last 15 of the 180 minutes of football in front of Unirea Urziceni, hanging on to a 1-0 lead that proved decisive, in the end. Just for the record, Zenit is the team that had payed around 30 million Euros for Danny and recently tabled another 22 million for Bruno Alves, while Unirea Urziceni finished last season in second place in Liga I, splashing out 500.000 Euros this summer, on the transfer market.

This was the sort of tie with one possible outcome, right? Then, what’s the purpose of this article, if Zenit sent home – in fact, in the Europa League’s playoffs – Unirea Urziceni, the underdog? What’s the point in discussing it, when the decisive goal was provided by Danny (the player bought with a transfer fee that would have determined even a sheik to check him up on youtube), after a one-vs-one duel with Nicu, the only player who was at Unirea when the club was playing third division football. This is what makes the difference, this is what football is all about, these days, right? Yeah, right!

Mihai Stoica and Dan Petrescu, the professionals who deserve all the credit for assembling this excellent group. Photo by onlinesport.ro

For those who missed the second leg, played on Wednesday evening in Sankt Petersburg, on a stadium Zenit will abandon as soon as the new and impressive venue will be ready, the Russian club went through hell as the end of an otherwise controlled game was approaching. With a bit of luck from the pitch, inspiration and guts from the bench, the last 15 minutes of the second game could have easily changed the outcome of a tie decided by Danny’s classy finish. Then, the world would have found very interesting the following facts:

  • Unirea’s players hadn’t been paid for the past three months.
  • Unirea’s players had refused to turn against the club and ask, according to regulations, to be released of their contracts, even though several first team members would have had no problems in finding new clubs and better deals.
  • Unirea’s players had decided to stay focused and turn up to work, knowing that the club’s owner, Dumitru Bucsaru, had earned last season around 20 million Euros from the club’s excellent performance in the Champions League, yet he refused to pay them.
  • Unirea’s players had chosen to fight Zenit’s stars, ignoring the Russians’ spending spree and their own club’s 500.000 Euros transfer campaign, hoping to reach once again the group stage, while having no guarantee that, if they make another 20 million Euros for the club’s owner, they’ll at least get paid.
  • Unirea’s players were determined to behave like the professionals that probably are hard to find even at top European clubs and put fame and glory ahead before money.

With these guys out of the Champions League, the world of football can relax. It’s still all about the money. At least up there, where the big boys are playing… with the big bucks.

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