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?
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…
After a spell in charge of Unirea Urziceni, Ronny Levy took advantage of Mihai Stoica’s return to Steaua and received an offer he could not refuse, as he was coming after a season in which he fought to avoid relegation with Beitar Jerusalem. Now, he’s expected to be challenging for the title and get some more European exposure.
Taking over from Dan Petrescu, in January 2010, was no piece of cake, but he did a good job, deserving credit for his brave approach. Levy’s job in Urziceni was not just to fine-tune a very disciplined team that was playing a very direct game (successfully implemented in Krasnodar, as well), as he started to teach Unirea a different style, based on ball possession, which he’s expected to repeat in Bucharest, where he won’t lack quality players.
Considering the names previously linked with this position, Levy’s appointment is a surprisingly wise move, as his calm approach and focus on he job should help him cope with Becali’s invasive style, with the help of the club’s manager Mihai Stoica, whose position gained even more strength now.
He now wears the team’s armband, but is the first to think of a move away from Urziceni. He’s Vasile Maftei, the versatile defender that still plays an important role in Razvan Lucescu’s plans with the national team, who is desperately trying to save his career, as the last season’s runners-up are sinking without trace.
When the team manager left Unirea he promised Maftei that he’d be the first player transferred and Mihai Stoica proved to be a man of his word. Signed by Steaua Bucuresti, he did everything he could to make this happen: asked the owner to prepare the cash, convinced the coach that he needs such a player and even tried to discuss with the hard-core fans that the former captain of their arch-rivals Rapid will be giving 100% in training and on the pitch, maybe not for the red and blue colors, but at least for the money. Stoica stumbled at the last and most challenging hurdle, in spite of his popularity with the fans, who cannot forget that this was a player that got so carried away when playing against Steaua that he loved the show it through large gestures and not very nice words. The final call came today, from the club’s owner – always desperate to regain the public’s support – who stated that a player cannot be transferred, if the fans give the “go-away” instead of the “go-ahead” signal.
I honestly believe that Maftei feels the same thing like his friend, Mihai Stoica: relief. The problem is that the player has now lost the advantage in the mind-games played with his former and beloved club, Rapid, who would have had some problems if they had allowed the move to Steaua to happen without at least a formal bid, for the return of their prodigal son. Now, he only has to wait and hope that Rapid will sell some players this winter, to get the needed 400.000 Euros for his transfer and also afford at least another 15.000 Euros/month. I, for one, cannot wonder what in the world are his agents doing in the meantime. Judging by his credentials, it should rarely get any easier than this…
Name: Vasile Maftei
Position(s): centre-back, right back, defensive midfielder
Curent value (transfermarkt.de): 1.700.000 Euros
Current asking price: 400.000 Euros
Liga I career: 254 matches / 11 goals
This season: 13 matches / 1 goal
National team: 12 matches / 1 goal
As expected, Unirea Urziceni, the team lead by Dan Petrescu to a record eigth points in the Champions League’s group stage, was dismantled by the other title contenders, at the beginning of the season. The season that was going to be Unirea’s last in the Liga I, with relegation as sure “as death and taxes”, after the departure of an entire squad. Reserves and coaches included, plus several staff members. The club was going down, but not without a fight.
Players out: Pablo Brandan, Laurentiu Marinescu, George Galamaz, Ricardo Gomes, Iulian Apostol, Marius Onofras and Marius Bilasco (Steaua Bucharest); Adrian Neaga and Sorin Paraschiv (Volyn Lutsk); Valeriu Bordeanu (Dinamo), Sorin Frunza (Rapid), Catalin Grigore (Astra Ploiesti), Dan Matei (FCM Targu Mures), Maurice Junior Dale (Panserraikos); Daniel Tudor, Petre Marin, Bruno Fernanded (released).
Well, the fight started right away, after the appointment of Octavian Grigore, and has made a series of high profile collateral victims. In the last four rounds, Urziceni suffered a heavy defeat at the hand of league leaders Otelul Galati, but managed to snatch three wins against as many serious title contenders. The last two of them came with the same score, 1-0, on the same impossible home ground for those who’d try to play ball, against the mighty Steaua and Dinamo. Read more…
When Astra Ploiesti announced the transfer of three players from last season’s runner-up, Unirea Urziceni, it all looked very strange, especially with a certain George Galamaz (team captain, national team player) among them. A week later, the deal that had been announced even on Astra’s official website was off: Gigi Becali, Steaua’s owner, who had to receive around 4 million Euros from Dumitru Bucsaru, discussed a deal that makes the Bucharest club extremely well-equipped for a title race that looks less demanding than in the past three seasons. Six players will move to Ghencea: George Galamaz (central defender), Ricardo Gomes (central midfielder), Iulian Apostol (central midfielder), Laurentiu Marinescu (attacking midfielder), Marius Onofras (forward), Marius Bilasco (centre forward). Number seven is still in talks with Steaua, but is definitely worth waiting for: Pablo Brandan, the Argentinian left back who was so close to VFB Stuttgart last winter and waited in vain for an offer from abroad, which, surprisingly, didn’t arrive. This extraordinary move on the transfer market comes as a blow for Steaua’s rivals, who had already enough problems on their own, but brings good news especially for Universitatea Craiova, where Victor Piturca gets an unexpected gift: some of the players brought by him to Ghencea this summer are available either for free (Todorov) or for low fees (Dorel Stoica – 100.000 Euros).
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…