The British football monthly When Saturday Comes runs a feature in the back, where they review a season from times gone by and track what has happened since then to selected teams and individuals. I thought it would be fun to do that for the Romanian league. Let’s see if I’m right. Cast your mind back to a time when the iPhone was brand new, Avril Lavigne was a superstar, and the USA had its stupidest ever president… up to that point…
Ten years ago, during the winter break in the 2007-08 season, Liga I looked like this:
The story of the season — CFR — The other clubs — Europe — Players and managers — National team
The story of the season
CFR Cluj were looking down on the rest, after their best-ever finish in third place the previous season. They had only just suffered their first league defeat of the season, away at Timișoara, after going eighteen games unbeaten. Funded by deep-pocketed local businessman Árpád Pászkány – an ethnic Hungarian – and coached by the well-travelled Ioan Andone, the CFR squad was so international that only five Romanians started a league match all season long. Rapid București, who had a similarly impressive start to the season, would fade badly and no-one else would catch the clujenii. Reigning champions Dinamo București, who had won the league four times in eight years, had a poor start to the season; title-winning manager Mircea Rednic resigned in early September after elimination from the Champions League. His replacement Walter Zenga lasted just twelve games, so Cornel Țălnar was caretaker manager over the winter. The team would recover, under the season’s fourth coach Gheorghe Multescu, to eventually finish fourth.
Steaua had started the season with Gheorghe Hagi in charge but in September, after just eleven matches, he quit over club owner Gigi Becali’s meddling in team selection. “Nobody will ever achieve anything at Steaua with Becali breathing down his neck,” Hagi said. A month later, Hagi’s fellow Steaua icon Marius Lăcătuș took over. An influx of South Americans in the winter break would see them almost catch the leaders, of whom Becali was not enamoured. “CFR are a Hungarian team … It would bring shame on the Romanian people if the Hungarians won the title.” Although Cluj, the capital of Transylvania, had historically been a predominantly Hungarian city, there were no Magyars in the CFR team. The season had begun with Becali alleging that referees were being paid to favour CFR against his team and, following Steaua’s rise, would end with counterclaims in the other direction. Becali even paid generous bonuses to CFR’s opponents, but ultimately Lăcătuș’s men would have to settle for the runners-up spot. Read Jonathan Wilson’s wonderfully entertaining reports of the season – the source for the above quotes – here and here.
[EDIT: I didn’t realise when I wrote this post, but in 2013 Becali was found guilty of attempting to bribe CFR’s opponents in the last game of the 2007-08 season, cross-town neighbours U Cluj. He offered them 100,000 euros per player to prevent CFR from winning the match. Becali was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The case is known as Dosarul Valiza, “the Suitcase File”, because a suitcase full of money was intercepted in a Cluj restaurant on the day of the game by anti-corruption police.]
The arrival of Cluj
Club president Iuliu Mureșan, coach Ioan Andone and owner Árpád Pászkány. [Source: lead.ro]
CFR Cluj‘s first ever major trophy, breaking a sixteen-year stranglehold by the capital’s teams on the Liga I title, was followed immediately by their second: CFR finished the league season with a win at local rivals U Cluj, and within the week they had won the double, beating Unirea Urziceni in the cup final. This made them only the fourth team from outside the capital to do the double, and the first in over a quarter of a century. This was also the start of a period of provincial ascendancy: it would be five years before a Bucharest team next won the championship.
Having finished in the top half of the top flight only once in their entire history before 2006, CFR enjoyed a five-year purple patch which brought three league titles, three cups and three appearances in the Champions League group stages (though Andone was sacked after a poor start to the 2008-09 season). Then financial problems caught up and the club’s name in the standings was regularly accompanied by the asterisk denoting a points deduction. They are now (winter break 2017-18) top of the league once more, under manager Dan Petrescu, and seem in a healthier state after a big cash injection last year. Their stadium was demolished the following season and replaced with the swish new Cluj Arena, which opened in 2011 with (what else?) a Scorpions concert.
Ups, downs and folded
Eleven of these eighteen teams have gone out of business since 2008. Two others have undergone a strange re-birthing without having fully disappeared beforehand. The only clubs which are still in the top division ten years later are CFR, Dinamo and Steaua. Mioveni and Pandurii are currently in Liga 2.
In their second season ever at the top level, and having been in the fourth division as recently as 2000, unheralded Unirea Urziceni achieved their highest-ever league position in 2007-08, under head coach Dan Petrescu. They also reached the cup final, but lost to CFR Cluj. The following year they would, incredibly, win the league title, going on to European action against Rangers, Sevilla and Liverpool, among others; Urziceni (population 17,000) would become the smallest town ever to be represented in the Champions League. But in 2010 the owner, apparently in hock to Steaua boss Becali, sells most of the players and the following season declines to apply for a league licence, condemning the club to a death as swift as its flowering was brief.
Ceahlăul Piatra Neamț ran out of money and withdrew from Liga II in 2015-16; the club was dissolved after 96 years of existence and a new entity, CSM Ceahlăul, was founded soon afterwards. Farul Constanța, Hagi’s first club, had spent 42 post-war seasons in the top flight when, in 2016, by now a third-division outfit, the club was declared bankrupt and re-founded by fans. The new club currently looks good for a possible promotion out of Liga III. Gloria Bistrița were at the end of the most, ahem, glorious period in their history, which had seen them win the cup and the league cup, finish in the top six several times and beat Atletico Madrid in European competition (Intertoto, but it counts). Thanks to financial mismanagement they are now in the county leagues. Towards the end of the 2015-16 season, fourteen players and three coaches at Gloria Buzău were banned for their involvement in match-fixing, and the second-division club, besides being unable to field a team, was declared bankrupt that summer.
Universitatea Cluj won only once before Christmas and went down to Liga II. The following year they only survived at that level on the last day. The club was taken over in 2009 by former Dinamo financier Florian Walter. His money powered U back into the top division, but after three years Walter left and bought Petrolul Ploiești; he was later indicted for money-laundering and fled the country. U were relegated to Liga III in 2016. Walter’s company was declared bankrupt and a new club was formed by the university and the city council; after one promotion they’re now back up in Liga III and on the march.
The 2007-08 season turned out to be the last time that Rapid, champions in 1999 and 2003, finished in the top three. A chaotic decade has followed, culminating in bankruptcy in 2016. Two new clubs have been formed claiming successor status, both currently in the Bucharest fourth division. Vasile Maftei, a regular in 2007-08, has just signed for one of these, joining former team-mate Daniel Pancu at the county league side.
Politehnica Timișoara was in fact the little-known former minnow AEK Bucharest, which had been moved to Timișoara and renamed in 2002. The club was administratively relegated in 2011, despite finishing as runners-up, and dissolved in 2012. Two successor clubs exist: one (supported by the council) in Liga I and another (run by fans) in Liga II. Universitatea Craiova – the previous provincial team to do the double, in the early 1980s – was controversially disaffiliated by the FA in 2011. The sports club refounded its football arm a year later, which was recognised as the same club and readmitted to the federation in 2014; it now plays in the top flight again. A new club was formed by disillusioned fans in summer 2017 and plays in the county leagues.
Poli Iași, the dominant force in the eastern region of Moldavia, had spent 26 seasons in the top flight up to this point. They lost their perpetual battle against relegation in 2010, and consequently filed for bankruptcy. A clone club was immediately formed, named CSMS Iași, which reached Liga I in 2012. Neighbouring FC Vaslui’s owner, retired referee Adrian Porumboiu, spent loadsamoney on (largely) foreign players and, from 2008-09, would achieve six consecutive top-five finishes, with concomitant European qualification. The bubble burst with administrative relegation in 2014 and the club, which had only existed for twelve years, instantly folded. Oțelul Galați would do even better, unexpectedly winning the league in 2010-11, but relegation in 2015 resulted in bankruptcy a year later. Fans formed a new club which is currently in the third tier.
UTA, six-times Romanian champions but since the 1970s a yo-yo club, were initially coached this season by Marius Lăcătuș. He left in October for Steaua and his successor Roland Nagy was unable to keep them up. The club spent five seasons in the second tier before a new club was formed by supporters disgusted at the way the old club was being run. The new entity managed to secure the badge and history of UTA, and now plays in Liga II, while the previous one was administratively relegated and effectively disappeared.
By contrast, a mere enforced name change for Steaua (now legally called FCSB) doesn’t seem so bad, eh?
This was Mioveni’s first and only season in the top division and the best year in their short history. A small-town club founded in 2000, they beat Dinamo in the cup quarter-final the same season. No longer part-financed by the Dacia car plant, CS Mioveni currently compete in Liga II. Former Romanian international Laurenţiu Roșu is their fifth coach of the season so far.
Pandurii Târgu Jiu went through four coaches this season and narrowly escaped relegation. Having twice dodged demotion thanks to teams above them receiving administrative relegation, they were unexpectedly runners-up in the league in 2012-13, and finished third in 2015-16. Last season, however, they were finally unable to escape and they now languish near the bottom of Liga II, destitute and with an uncertain future.
Dinamo were unlucky to draw Lazio in the third qualifying round of the Champions League; they promptly lost to Elfsborg in the UEFA Cup too. Steaua did get through to the CL group stage, but one point from six games meant they too were out of Europe by Christmas. In the UEFA Cup, CFR Cluj themselves went out at the earliest opportunity to Anorthosis Famagusta; Oțelul Galați – who had qualified via the Intertoto Cup – to Lokomotiv Sofia; and Rapid Bucharest to Nürnberg. Dinamo, CFR, Oțelul and Rapid won only one match between them. Not a vintage season.
Persons of note
Steaua’s top scorer this season, with nine league goals, is now (at the time of writing!) the coach at Becali’s FCSB. The 37-year-old was plucked from the third division, where he won promotion with SCM Pitești in 2016-17 in his first ever season as a head coach. He wound down his playing career in the role of ‘token old bloke’ at Hagi’s up-and-coming Viitorul.
Romania’s most capped player retired from international duty in 2007 after 134 matches, and became FC Vaslui’s player-manager. He played his last game on 1 December 2007, aged 39. He was dismissed in March, with the club in sixth position; without him, they would go on to achieve their highest ever league finish to date: seventh. Vaslui owner (and ex-referee) Adrian Porumboiu alleged afterwards that Munteanu had been paid to let his team be beaten by Steaua. In 2009, after spells at U Cluj and Steaua which lasted a combined 15 games, Munteanu took over at Oțelul Galați, with whom he unexpectedly won the league championship.
Dinamo’s hot-shot top scored for the second time, with 21 league goals. By the time he retired, in 2013, he had amassed 515 Liga I appearances, the all-time record, and scored 214 goals – second only to Dudu Georgescu, whose prolific exploits in the 1970s and early 1980s are not entirely beyond suspicion. Dănciulescu is also the Romanian Cup’s all-time highest scorer, with 41.
This same season saw the culmination of the Romanian national team’s best ever performance in a qualifying competition: they topped their group ahead of the Netherlands and Bulgaria; Adrian Mutu, in the form of his life for Fiorentina and reigning Romanian player of the year, top scored with six. An unspectacular side, with only two big names in Mutu and Cristian Chivu, having achieved creditable draws with France and Italy in their group of death, would be knocked out of the group stage in the finals by the same Dutch team. The 1-0 qualifying win in October 2007 was the team’s last competitive win against a top-20 nation to date.