So… we have a first-time league champion!
Yes, as I am sure you will know, because it’s a huge global news story*, the new champions of Romania are Astra Giurgiu! They secured their first ever Liga I title with two games to spare, because second-placed Steaua could only draw at home with Pandurii Targu Jiu. Astra received the trophy at their next home match, a 4-2 win over Dinamo. Having only lost 4 games all season, and almost certainly ending up as top scorers, Astra could yet stretch their winning margin to eleven points over last year’s champions Steaua.
So is this a blip, or are Astra the next big thing? Well, there are several answers to that, and Romanian football doesn’t come out very well in any of them.
Astra have finished 4th, 2nd and 4th in the last three years. They’ve been in the Europa League three times as a consequence, and have got good results against Lyon, Celtic and West Ham during that time. They won the Romanian cup in 2014. Although Steaua have won the title in each of the last three seasons, it hasn’t been a typical domination so much as (often) being less awful than the rest. UEFA coefficients (admittedly an imperfect system) currently rank Steaua below Viktoria Plzen, Hannover 96 and Metalist Kharkiv, while Astra are down beneath Hull City and even compatriots FC Vaslui, a club which went out of business two years ago.
Which brings us on to the business side of things.
After 91 years of unremarkable lower-division history in the oil city of Ploiesti, north of Bucharest, in 2012 Astra’s owner Ioan Niculae moved the club to Giurgiu, an industrial town which looks across the Danube to Bulgaria, 140 km away. Ioan Niculae was in 2014 Romania’s richest man: he made money in agrobusiness and bought the Astra oil refinery in the mid-nineties, at around the same time that he bought Astra Ploiesti football club.
Niculae has made Astra what they are today, in every sense. But he has also fallen foul of Romania’s anti-corruption drive: in April 2015 he was found guilty of illegally financing the presidential campaign of Mircea Geoana in 2009, and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. He is also currently being investigated for tax evasion, money laundering and buying influence, the last of which cases involves a former prime minister.
Some of Niculae’s biggest companies entered insolvency earlier this year.
And although the club has qualified for the Champions’ League third qualifying round, the usual financial questions come into play as to whether UEFA allow them to compete. And even if they can compete, the way of Romanian football is that if you are successful you will lose huge amounts of money; if you are not, you will lose even more. Of the 23 teams which have ever won the Romanian league title, only nine remain in existence today. Of those that have been successful in recent times: CFR Cluj (champions 2008, 2010, 2012) and Petrolul Ploiesti are in severe financial trouble and dealing with points penalties; Unirea Urziceni (champions 2009) were disbanded in 2011; FC Vaslui finished 6th in 2014 but were relegated straight to Liga 4 and went out of business; Otelul Galati (champions 2011) have just been relegated to Liga 3 (which is much worse than it sounds); Rapid Bucharest (champions 2003) are in Liga 2 and close to bankruptcy; even Dinamo (champions 2002, 2004, 2007) have entered insolvency proceedings. Steaua, the most successful and famous club in Romania’s post-war history, were evicted from their stadium and deprived of their badge and even their name, by a legal dispute with the army in late 2014.
So Romanian football is a total shambles. So plenty of football clubs have their owners in jail – Steaua’s Gigi Becali, for one, only recently got out – so what? It is rapidly becoming clear that anyone who has made a lot of money in this country has broken the law at some point. In Giurgiu they’ve apparently been doing without hot water or electric light in the changing rooms because of the ongoing money problems. But in March Astra’s coach Marius Sumudica took it a bit further: he was fined 20,000 euros and banned from football-related activity for six months for betting on Liga I matches.
So, while we await the outcome of investigations into Leicester City’s financial “fair play” or otherwise, and before Astra get knocked out by the first half-decent team to come their way in Europe, let’s enjoy a break in the monotony and give the Bulgarians a good look at the Romanian league championship trophy across the river.
*in no sense of the phrase