It was called “The transfers file” and, strictly linked to an investigation lead by Gazeta Sporturilor, ended up today, after eight long years, with eight important names sent behind bars, for money laundering and tax evasion. The biggest of all: Gheorghe Popescu, former Romanian international, former Barcelona captain, who was days away from taking over the presidency of the Romanian Football Federation…
“I would have sold players to Bin Laden back then, it was all about getting money”, stated Cristian Borcea a while ago in front of judges who have felt everything, from mockery to fear, during this long period, from the persons pleading their innocence. Borcea was a key shareholder with Dinamo and just like George Copos, who took Rapid from glory to agony during his tenure as club owner, had retired from the spotlight, laying low, hoping it will all go away.
Others haven’t. Brothers Victor and Ioan “Giovani” Becali went on pulling strings on the transfer market, Mihai Stoica was in charge of Steaua, while Gheorghe Popescu had all but moved his family pictures into the office that Mircea Sandu is preparing to leave. Surprisingly, the race for the presidency of the FRF lost its front-runner at the last minute and for a very long time.
Here’s the list of the definitive sentences heard today:
- George Copos (former owner of Rapid Bucharest) – 3 years and 8 months
- Mihai Stoica (current Steaua sporting director) – 3 years and 6 months
- Cristi Borcea (former shareholder at Dinamo Bucharest) – 6 years and 4 months
- Ioan Becali (FIFA agent) – 6 years and 4 months
- Victor Becali (FIFA agent) – 4 years and 8 months
- Jean Padureanu (former president of Gloria Bistrita) – 3 years and 4 months
- Gheorghe Popescu (former international, lobbied Florin Bratu’s transfer to Galatasaray) – 3 years and 1 month
- Gigi Netoiu (former shareholder at various clubs) – 3 years and 4 months
All were involved in deals that saw player sold abroad, smaller transfer fees entered in the clubs’ books and part of the real fees ran through personal off-shore accounts.
Here’s the list of transfers that lead to the above sentences:
- Iulian Arhire – from Otelul Galati to Pohang Steelers (1999)
- Ionel Ganea – from Gloria Bistrita to VfB Stuttgart (1999)
- Cristi Dulca – from Rapid to Pohang Steelers (1999)
- Cosmin Contra – from Dinamo to Deportivo Alaves (1999)
- Bogdan Mara – from Dinamo to Deportivo Alaves (2001)
- Paul Codrea – from Dinamo to Genoa (2001)
- Florin Cernat – from Dinamo to Dynamo Kiew (2001)
- Nicolae Mitea – from Dinamo to Ajax (2003)
- Lucian Sanmartean – from Gloria Bistrita to Panathinaikos (2003)
- Florin Bratu – from Rapid to Galatasaray (2003)
- Adrian Mihalcea – from Dinamo to Chunnam (2004)
- Dan Alexa – from Dinamo to Beijing Guoan (2004)
Today’s decisions came as a shock for those involved in Romanian football. Lighter sentences for a couple of those involved and no punishment at all for the likes of Mihai Stoica and Gheorghe Popescu were expected. Well, sometimes, unlike Romanian football, Romanian justice can be unpredictable…
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…
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 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.
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…
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 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?
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
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?
Appreciated for his football knowledge, eye for players, ability to ease Gigi Becali’s harsh words into Steaua’s dressing room and especially protect the club from outside attacks, Mihai Stoica received a deserved warm welcome at his return from Unirea Urziceni. The chaos within the club packed with Becali’s relatives and obedient professionals was going to end and Steaua was going to at least leave the impression of the most professional and well organized club in the country. Not to mention look like it has a strategy for more than the current season and all the mercato activity will turn into profit and sporting success, something everyone witnessed at Unirea.
The winter break arrived and there are some strange things going on at the Bucharest side, who gave up easily on the experienced Bulgarian midfielder Angelov and the prolific Greek centre-forward Kapetanos (who, for the record, spent part of last summer in South Africa, enjoying some World Cup football), considering their wages too high and that the squad provides enough quality replacements. Two debatable arguments, as 250.000 Euros/season isn’t a big salary for a title contender/Champions League team wannabe, while the use of the mentioned alternative solutions will make the bench look short and unreliable.
Even more strange is Steaua’s approach when it comes to buying players, with the first important signing a highly rated right back, you’ve probably never heard of, if you’re leaving outside Romania. No, it’s not Otelul’s Cornel Rapa, available for under one million Euros, who recently made his debut for the senior national team and is topping the standings at club level, showing impressive consistency at the tender age of 21, having played for 90 minutes in all the 18 games of the season. We’re talking about Gabriel Matei, also 21, who will only be taking Rapa’s place in the U21 and is hoping to avoid relegation for his second consecutive season in Liga I. A player with a total of 33 matches at this level, which determined Steaua to pay an incredible 600.000 Euros and promise Pandurii either 20% of his next transfer fee or another half of million Euros. Of course, the kid, who will continue to fight to avoid relegation until the summer, is tipped for greatness, but I invite you to put your imagination on hold for a second and look at it like a piece of business:
1. How often Romanian clubs manage to sell a player for over 1 million Euros?
2. Why did Steaua rush to finalize the deal now, if the agreement states that the player will stay Pandurii for the rest of the season?
3. What could have raised Matei’s value until the summer so highly, that a deal would have become impossible under the current terms?
4. Wouldn’t have been as many chances to see a possible increase from a few more U21 caps compensated or even outdone by a possible relegation from Pandurii, at the end of the season?
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.
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.
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…