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Everyone is weaker as Liga I restarts today, but Becali’s club could be this season’s biggest loser

February 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Razvan Marin left the surprising league leaders Viitorul, second placed Steaua lost two key players in Popa and Tosca, while Craiova parted ways with team captain and regular left-back Vatajelu, managing to resist attempts from abroad for their highest asset, Ivan. Heavily weakened from the chasing pack comes out Dinamo, who sold Rotariu and Lazar and finally parted ways with Gnohere, all three attacking men that will be difficult to replace in a team that is yet to be sure of its place in the playoffs, with former champions Astra knocking at their door, in spite of all the torments that probably would have killed any other club by now.

liga-1-standings

From a sporting point of view, everyone comes out weaker from this long winter break, considering that only Steaua had – as always – both the money and desire to re-invest, bringing in a lot of firepower in Alibec and Gnohere, two physical strikers who promise to brush aside weak and deep defensive lines, but who could need time to adjust. Leaving aside their proven quality in the league, shall we try to go back until we find a regular scorer for Steaua in the no 9 role?

The competition will be weaker, no doubt, but the teams that will make it into the playoffs should attack the final stretch of this league that suddenly became interesting again for European clubs from fairly even positions. There’s a lot of ambition in Craiova, but their coach has rarely managed to keep his team (and often his own job) for an entire season, in spite of often very promising spells. Gaz Metan was the surprise package of the first part of the season, but they’ve lost their main scoring threat and the insolvency that will keep them from playing in Europe is anything but good motivation to keep going.

But what about Viitorul, who sit in first place and don’t have an owner capable of messing with the coach’s head, Hagi covering both roles and maybe regretting he’s not able anymore to offer himself some minutes, at least at the end of games that might need a magic left footed touch. Well, they’ve done the right thing by letting Marin go and fingers crossed for the midfielder’s success with Standard Liege, as the Academy’s products really need some good advertising abroad. Hopefully, another youngster will take Marin’s place, although signing Nelut Rosu (who had shown some promise, but that was more than a year ago and playing for a side fighting against relegation) looks a lot like the acquisition of Purece whom Hagi promised to get to national team level. Apparently, it’s trickier than expected to integrate Romanian players with rather questionable tactical knowledge and technical ability, effects of poor work through done at youth level, but also in their first years among the seniors, than to integrate a young player raised properly at his own Academy. Why is he sometimes going round this otherwise natural and key step for his own success I do not know, but recently it happened more and more often, with both Romanian and foreign players whom he’s been trying without luck to transform into influential figures…

No prediction from me, but hopefully Viitorul and Craiova can take into the new year their ability to win points often by taking initiative and playing attacking football, with Steaua’s aura losing its strength even more in recent months. The pressure is on and, come summer, Becali’s club could lose both a title that nobody was looking able to challenge at the beginning of the season and its famous name.

Razvan Marin joins Standard Liege. A good move for everyone involved!

January 20, 2017 2 comments

Fans of Standard might know little about him, but what’s important from them is that the club’s board made a smart, justified (it was about time, right?) move by going for his signature. Marin is the brightest and most consistent young player in Liga 1, is younger and a lot cheaper than Anderlecht’s huge transfer from the same competition six month ago (Stanciu going at 23, with less re-selling potential for an absurd transfer fee) and will find in Belgium a competition that will challenge and help him develop.

Linked previously with clubs like Zenith, Roma or Fiorentina, Marin will find with Standard the much needed playing time at this age and in his first adventure abroad and I have a feeling that everyone involved in this deal can look back smiling to this very moment in a couple of years.

razvan-marin

Having just lost Trebel (25), Standard nailed a central midfielder with a rather similar profile, who can add more going forward, but who needs to progress physically and mentally to reach similar levels in the defensive phase of the game, especially if Standard will continue to use a 4-4-2.

Ideally suited for a 4-3-3, Marin can adjust to a midfielder pairing in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-2-3-1 with a physically strong number 6 able to allow him the freedom to move forward and also protect the back four. Just to be clear, the Romanian international shows good work ethic and will play his part defensively, being quite a tireless runner and showing discipline in tracking back, pressing and cutting off passing and running channels in his own half, but he’s not the most aggressive tackler you’ll meet and in terms of vigour and ability to make successful challenges defensively 1v1, well, there’s some homework for Standard’s coaching staff right there…

If allowed to express himself, Marin will prove quite influential in developing attacks with his passing and movement range and you’re in for a surprise when you’ll see this guy take his chance on goal from long range… I won’t spoil it for you. Erm, ok, maybe just a little bit 🙂

To conclude, Standard gets a 20 years old with a lot of first team experience,who has made an impact in Romania’s senior national team and has every reason to add caps to his name with consistency, who is already on the radar of some big clubs and who was signed at a realistic price, which ensures quite a big margin for profit if Marin does impress.

Marin, on the other hand, has no reason to be down for missing out on the speculated transfers; he takes a step forward, will play in a league that posed problems to fellow internationals Chipciu and Stanciu at Anderlecht, both more experienced than him, and won’t need to fight the same level of doubt when scouts will be sent to (re)asses his level and potential.

He’ll get to learn, to play and to taste football abroad with all the challenges that have seen similar Romanian talents waste important years in bigger leagues and clubs. He has the mentality and ability to see this through and be more prepared for what everyone thinks is his future.

We should see some more happy faces in Constanta, where Hagi just nailed the biggest transfer fee received for a single Academy product. Leaving aside the much needed cash, which is in the region speculated even if Marin would have really gone to the above mentioned clubs from Italy or Russia, he desperately needs a player to go from Viitorul and succeed abroad. Having done some business with Italian clubs, trying to place youngsters in their Primavera sides, he saw Chitu return from Valenciennes, Iancu come back from Turkey (after an initial bad spell with Steaua), Manea on the sidelines in Mouscron. In Romania, he can only get some cash from Steaua, so he could do with some sort of proof that his players are ready for the next step and can do it away from the best setup and facilities that youngsters can find around here. I surely wish that for he’ll find the means and motivation to keep on working just as before at his Academy, just as I wish we finally see more Romanian players make it abroad, away from a league that’s slowly dying…

A look at Hagi’s struggles with the best Romanian football academy

September 15, 2014 2 comments

Viitorul started its third consecutive season in the top flight, which is quite a feature considering the impressive number of youngsters promoted, but also the difficulties to survive in a league full of clubs ready to throw everything into a fight that usually has one true victim: the future of Romanian football.
Hagi entered this fight with his best kids and intentions, but soon realized all his work and huge investment – done mostly by himself – can go to waste, so Viitorul has now linked to its name some shocking, yet very useful results obtained at the very end of the previous two Liga 1 campaigns.
It was not pretty to watch and it surely didn’t send the right signals not only within the club, but also outside of it. But what father wouldn’t try everything to protect his children?

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The real problem, in my opinion, is not that Hagi felt the need to intervene, as he does now, by taking an active role in the technical staff of his own club, is that he failed to address some important issues, which regard both the Academy’s activity and the senior team’s results.

1. No real solution for players who turn 19.
The youth competitions – which Hagi’s Academy dominate for years – involve only players up to 19 years old. Once the youngsters reach this critical age in their development, there’s no Under 21 or Reserve League games waiting for them. Hagi probably hoped to address that when he supported Gheorghe Popescu’s candidacy, but the former Barcelona captain ended the race in jail, not in the Romanian Football Federation’s best office.
There was no plan B. There are no partner-clubs in the second division, there are no friendly relations with other Liga 1 clubs, where most of his 19 years old, champions at youth level, could have a chance to take the normal step towards senior football. Viitorul is the only senior club to aspire to and it simply cannot look after and promote every generation of new players that comes out of the academy each year.

2. Too much confidence in the Academy’s potential to promote itself.
Initially, Hagi didn’t want a club in the tip flight, but was forced to push for promotion, as he felt that the second division is not a glamorous shopping avenue for interesting clubs, not even Romanian 1st division teams. He had to stop the investment in the training facilities near Constanta to be able to finance the club, but I am not sure that things are that much better. A look at some of the top sales done so far? Chitu to Valenciennes (failed to adjust, now returned to Romania), Balasa to Roma (loaned in Serie B), Iancu to Steaua (failed to impress)… Not very good advertising, is it?

3. Poor marketing and reluctance to work with agents.
Probably Hagi relies on his name, on the impressive number of youth internationals (the U21 just lost 0-8 to Germany…) and surely lacks in his club structure the people who can attract and keep alive the little interest of foreign clubs. On the other hand, he also ignores the good (which often comes with some bad, but not always!) that can be done by agents who know how to sell players.
I’ll offer one example I’ve been watching from a distance: Adrian Stefanescu, a Romanian agent who has very good links with top UK based clubs, including Manchester City, but who does some really good work in getting very young Romanian players in cont(r)act and with Premier League and Championship clubs. Atletico Arad, who does some good work at youth level, are lucky and also clever to have him as partner…

4. Poor selection of first team coaches
Viitorul promoted under the guidance of Catalin Anghel, an unknown, young coach, who has left the club after the first year in the top flight. His choice looked strange in the first place and it set a pattern Hagi hasn’t abandoned. Same goes for Bogdan Vintila, former keeper and colleague of the owner, who was followed and now follows after Bogdan Stelea, whose brief spell in charge means that Hagi didn’t really had to appoint himself in a technical role a couple of weeks ago. My feeling is that he was already making use of those prerogatives…
Anyway, having young, unexperienced and not so strict coaches in charge of a young and unexperienced team might not be the best idea, but until proven wrong, it seems like the only and the best idea.

5. Belief in wasted talents
Viitorul works every day with something than can be seen, felt in a player, but that cannot always be transformed into quality. It’s a process that involved hundreds of players since the academy opened its doors, thousands of hours spent on the pitch, millions of Euros invested and a bunch of subjective factors that can influence the outcome and make the work at youth level such a massive task which most of Romanian clubs simply refuse to undertake anymore.
Why Viitorul, who produces talent in quantities way over the senior team’s needs, decides every once in a while to sign players who proved at every level that they couldn’t turn themselves into quality professional players is simply beyond me. But, normally, it’s strictly linked with Hagi who – proved it also as a coach – really believes in his instincts (I cannot call stubborn a man I can’t stop admiring). Signing players like Alibec and Daminuta, whose real talent is to throw away the fantastic opportunities to make a huge career in football, made no sense to me. If Daminuta came on a free and, in theory, might allow Viitorul to make some money, Alibec was signed on loan from Inter, offered the place deserved by one of Viitorul’s kids, and made a mess of it once again. Now he’s warming the bench of Astra Giurgiu, after his probably last loan spell in Serie A, with Bologna.
Trying to find a logic in these signings? Maybe Hagi wanted to show his Academy graduates how they must not look like in 2-3 years time. Full of tattoos and full of themselves, with some money in the bank, a flashy car & tarty girl at their disposal. But is that such a bad profile for a 17-18 years olds whose family education stopped at 13-14, when they left home to join the Academy and spent his teenage years among boys, going from training to school and back?
They might have all dreamt at one point to become the new Hagi, but haven’t we all? 🙂

The King’s speech. Starring a certain Gheorghe Hagi…

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

hagiGoing to Turkey once, years ago, I was stopped at the security check on Ataturk airport and asked to go inside a booth for a body search. It never took place, as I’ve spent a couple of minutes talking about Hagi. And the officer there wasn’t even a Galatasaray fan…

They love him. They really do. And those who don’t sing their love for him, because they support Fener of Besiktas, respect him.  I sometimes wonder if it’s the same in Romania. At times, I’m convinced we don’t. Experts in mocking those doing better than us, we’ve found Hagi’s weakness: his speech. Aware that a man so good on the ball can’t be that good with words, we laugh at his interviews. We’ve reduced his fantastic personality to some phrases. We’ve decided to ignore all his  ideas and projects and have a good long look (and laugh) at his words. I admit, he can be funny. Hell, I even use one of his funniest expressions every once in a while, for a good laugh…

The question is: if I will ever have the chance to meet him, will I be able to find my words? Will I be able to avoid embarrassment and put together a few words? I hope so. At least three of them are necessary. Because I do love him for the fantastic player he was. And for the honest and humble person he is. And for blessing a nation with his skill and for the way he keeps forgiving us for laughing at his continuous attempts to keep on doing some good to Romanian football…

Today, the great man turns 49. La multi ani, Gica! We do love you, it’s just that, for some reason, we either don’t know or don’t want to show it…

Steaua’s goal in the Youth League: avoid embarrassing results

September 12, 2013 1 comment

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.

Hagi's Academy fuels not just Romania's youth national teams, but also Romania's champion club.

Hagi’s Academy fuels not just Romania’s youth national teams, but also Romania’s champion club.

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.

hagi academy

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 🙂

Denis Alibec – getting stronger, older, but not any wiser

Everybody was excited about the skinny forward from Constanta a few years ago and Inter moved quickly to get the signature of Denis Alibec, in spite of the failure to get anything out of Ianis Zicu, who was definitely more talented. I remember watching him playing for Romania’s U19, soon after his move to Milano, and his arrogance and selfishness were difficult to digest. Had a gut feeling he’s not going to make it and something similar I felt not long ago, when I’ve seen Chievo’s Adrian Stoian – praised in Italy for his quality and potential – pull on the yellow shirt nobody really seems to care about these days…

alibecYears went by and Alibec failed to make it in Italy, although his performances with the nerazzurri’s Primavera certainly hadn’t gone un-noticed, Jose Mourinho wanting to have a look at the Romanian forward and offering him the chance to train with the seniors and even play. But, when everything seemed to go right, something changed the path of his career. He was sent on loan to Mechelen, in Belgium’s top flight, to get more experience among the seniors, but his difficult character was too much to deal with in what was supposed to be the quiet, calm environment that should have helped him blossom. Left the club after a fight with the coach and without a backup plan and a return to Romania, further away from the professional world, remained Inter only rehab solution. But Alibec isn’t surrounded by enemies and people who don’t see and appreciate his talents, as he probably thinks, and Gheorghe Hagi sacrificed a place in his newly promoted team, Viitorul Constanta, at the expense of one of his Academy’s better products (93 born Gavra barely got the chance to play last season). Alibec, “who seems to gain weight when he breaths”, played 23 matches in Liga 1 and, although his numbers might not be great, with 5 goals and 5 assists, he definitely impressed with a combination of physical strength and technical ability difficult to find in any other Romanian striker. This and Hagi’s word were enough for Steaua to really consider a move for him this summer, on condition Inter can be tricked to get nothing in exchange of what was considered now a player able to help the Bucharest side get into the Champions League’s groups stage. Talks were fueled by the press, but several Italian scouts were adamant the move would not go through, as “there’s interest for the player from the Serie A”.

They were right, Bologna moved for the 22 years old, who should have been more than happy at getting a second chance in Serie A. He’s not… “I’m sorry I have to leave behind my friends and my family. I hoped to be able to move to Steaua, but my faith is decided by Inter”, he stated to the press immediately after the deal was announced, without a second thought about the impact of his words on his near future. If a colder reception both from the staff, his colleagues and the fans should await in Emilia-Romagna, he should look back and think about his words. Or think about thinking before speaking. But the nightmare of having a second chance to impress in Serie A should not be long. He can wake up from it whenever he feels like it. It wouldn’t be the first time, he’s getting quite experienced at throwing away his chances to really make it…

 

What could Hagi sell first? A left footed number 10!

December 5, 2012 Leave a comment
Iancu (left) can kiss goodbye Viitorul's blue shirt.

Iancu (left) can kiss goodbye Viitorul’s blue shirt.

After 3 years of hard work and many more millions invested in a football academy and a football club promoted to the top flight last summer, Gheorghe Hagi is ready to collect his first cheque and it could well be a player that has quite a few things in common with the man once nicknamed Maradona of the Carpathians. He’s a precocious left footed attacking midfielder who doesn’t feel the weight of the number 10 shirt nor the pressure of first division football at a young age, in the team with the youngest average age in the league, and has already netted 6 goals in 16 appearances, at the age of 18.

Tested by Ajax Amsterdam, who already has its expert eyes on the likes of Bogdan Tiru and Cristian Gavra – other two talents from Hagi’s Academy – and scouted also by Galatasaray, who could really sell the story of the King’s heir in Turkey, Iancu is now facing the biggest decision of his young career. In need of cash to continue the development of the Academy, as well as supporting the growing costs of a first division club, Hagi has decided to listen to any offers this winter and Steaua Bucharest was the quickest to table a sum close to what’s expected in exchange of a player that doesn’t pop up very often in this part of the world.

He started just like me, at a young age and in the sound of goals. He’s skilful and has the ability to make quick decisions. By doing so, Iancu looks quick in everything he does, although he’s not the fastest player around.

Gheorghe Hagi on Gabriel Iancu

“Steaua must now discuss personal terms with the player”, admits Hagi, who refuses to say that the race between interested clubs has now ended, but as far as I know, has demanded some guarantees that the youngster will be offered the chance to play for the senior team, so he can continue his impressive development. Hopefully, Steaua will keep its’ word, not only for Iancu’s sake, but also for the club’s image, more famous recently for wasting talent, rather than properly nurturing it…

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