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.
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.
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.
Hence the booing. You can hear it every time a player tries to help his team get a free kick or, if the player is really good at it, not like Tottenham’s Bale, get a penalty. There’s an entire debate about diving in the Premier League and below, with some fine players getting the stick for trying to get their clubs closer to victories. That would never happen here, in Romania, where diving will only be sanctioned with laughs and an extra replay on TV, if they’re indeed performed without talent. Yes, talent matters, but you also need other stuff too, like practice and ability to make good judgement, as a referee would definitely take into consideration the fact that, if you’d have resisted that challenge, it was only the goalie left to beat. Either you’re absolutely mad to go down or that was an obvious foul which he didn’t see. Obviously, both answers are wrong – you were simply clever to make him think like that. If you’re playing for the home team, even better. If you’re wearing Steaua’s, Dinamo’s, CFR’s or Vaslui’s shirt, you might have just helped the guy with the whistle buy a nice present for the wife!
Dear English fans, in Romania, all the players are diving and everyone understands it. The fans would boo a terrible diver and will appreciate a talented one. Take Marius Lacatus, the master. Became a legend with Steaua and his number 7 shirt should not be offered to anyone. Lay it nicely inside the box, put two defenders to guard it, add a friendly referee and only then let the new signings fight for it. Or, better said, throw themselves at it. Everybody knew Lacatus was faking it, throwing his head back (big hair helped), even screaming when going down and staying there for minutes, curing quickly with his magic hand all sorts of terrible injuries. Unfortunately for him, instead of becoming a doctor after he hung up his boots, he decided to fake a successful coaching career. Everybody knew that the Lacatus in agony is just fine, fans, team-mates, opponents, referees, yet they could do nothing about it.
And what was there to be done? In the end, Lacatus was fooling the authorities, he was taking that extra step to help himself and his people, bending the law that little bit, a sport everybody was practicing in real life. Putting something in the doctor’s pocket for extra care, going with flowers, coffee or chocolate to any other public authority that needed to realize that you’d really want them to do their job. Steaua’s number 7 was the girlfriend “about to give birth” sitting in the right seat in your speeding car, good enough to convince a policeman to keep your money and return the driving license.
I cannot imagine what would have happened if Lacatus – who did play for Fiorentina and Oviedo – would have joined a Premier League club in the 90’s… Most likely, he would have been booed off from every pitch in the UK, even from people’s lawns and public parks, every week, but what if the English fans would have seen then – and acknowledged – one of the greatest divers of all at that time? I’d say they would’ve taunted now Bale only for being terrible at it…
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…