Last Saturday night, Viitorul sealed their first-ever league title with a 1-0 win over CFR Cluj, thanks to a second-half penalty, in front of a sell-out crowd of 4,500. Goalscorer Gabi Iancu returned to Hagi’s club last summer from Steaua/FCSB, whose 3-0 victory at home to CSU Craiova secured them the second Champions’ League spot – ahead of city rivals Dinamo, whose draw with Astra Giurgiu made no difference to their final position of third. Got that? FCSB’s Gigi Becali still believes that the League’s regulations are unclear and intends to take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, in the hope of having the trophy awarded to his club.
At the start of the season Viitorul, who have the youngest average squad age in the league (just over 22) and only one foreign player on the books, were given no chance of finishing on top of the table. 2015-16 had ended with a slump in form and their debut European adventure lasted just one tie: a 5-0 first-leg defeat away to Gent ensured they did not even remain competitive into August. Three of the club’s best players were sold, as per the business model. But incredibly they have done it. The truly remarkable story of the young club has been covered at length in English elsewhere… I recommend here or here or here for very good articles. Incidentally, Hagi stated last month that his players are on salaries of between €2k and €3k per month, except for the captain Benzar – a product of the academy, a full international, and club captain at the grand old age of 25 – who is on around €5k.
Here is an illustration of the relative financial clout of Liga 1 clubs:
Viitorul and FCSB go into the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League, which will be played in late July. Dinamo will play in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, and both Craiova and Astra will join them in the competition. Which round these last two teams go into will be decided by the Romanian Cup final next Saturday, as Astra take on Voluntari in Ploiești, an arrangement that ought to ensure a low attendance: the giurguvenii attract an average home attendance of under 2000, while their ilfovenii opponents average 1000.
Voluntari, a club from the outskirts of Bucharest funded by the municipal authorities (i.e. the taxpayer) and which has only existed since 2010, are in with a good chance of their first ever major trophy (to add to their Liga 3 title in 2014 and Liga 2 a year later). However, even if they beat an Astra side – last year’s champions, remember – mostly made up of players whose contracts are up and who will be leaving straight afterwards, Voluntari will not be able to take up the Europa League place reserved for the cup winners, because the club did not apply for a UEFA licence. [Update: They have debts overdue, but if they can come to an arrangement it may be possible for them to acquire a licence for European competition.]
Licences are all too often the story in Romanian football. This week saw the upholding of a court verdict in a case brought by former owner of the now-non-existent club FC Universitatea Craiova. In 2011 the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) “disaffiliated” the historic* club after a dispute between owner Adrian Mititelu and former coach Victor Pițurcă – or was it really a fight between Mititelu and the people running the FRF at the time, the notorious Mircea Sandu and Dumitru Dragomir? Anyway, the upshot was that all the players were released and the club was eventually disbanded. Nobody comes out of this saga with much credit – but they had little when it started either. Now, after six years in various courts, the Court of Appeal has decreed that the disaffiliation was unlawful and that the federation must pay a staggering €220 million, representing (I believe) an aggregate of the release clauses Craiova’s players had at the time. This sum would instantly bankrupt the federation, which has a budget of just €15 million; the consequences of that could, according to the FRF and the media, destroy the organised game of football in this country. Presumably some compromise will be reached, and some new legal process will get underway, so that at least the lawyers do OK out of the whole sorry mess.
In pointless trophy news, Dinamo won the League Cup – new-fangled and unnecessary clutter for the schedules – on Saturday evening, beating ACS Poli Timișoara, who can now concentrate on trying not to get relegated. They are, rather impressively, continuing to defy a seven-point deduction and – in spite of being beaten by Concordia Chiajna, who are on a downright weird run of winning matches and scoring goals – may well avoid even the play-off place. ASA Târgu Mureș are down for sure, after defeat at Pandurii, who are the other team in the three-way relegation dogfight.
The other club claiming to be Poli Timișoara, who are in the lower reaches of the second tier, are expecting the biggest Liga 2 crowd in years for their fixture against UTA Arad this Sunday: the clash is known as the Western Derby and is the country’s fiercest rivalry outside Bucharest. From 1948 until 1982 this clash always took place in the top division, but UTA were relegated in 2008 and around the same time the situation in Timișoara became ludicrously complicated – hence two clubs claiming to be one. In recent years things have taken a turn for the better and both these clubs are now fan-owned and on the way up. Poli are finally safe, while UTA need a win to keep alive their hopes of automatic promotion to Liga 1, in what is now a duel with Sepsi for second place.
That will do for now. AFC Rapid can seal promotion to Liga 4 this weekend too – more to follow!
*Officially, the current Liga 1 club CSU Craiova is the successor to the old and successful Craiova team. But this is not beyond dispute. Trust me, you really don’t want to get into it.