As an acknowledged expert on the arcane and bewildering world of Romanian football, people often stop me in the street to ask me questions, such as “Do you speak English?” or “How do I get to the metro station?” I don’t mind; it comes with the territory. This week, I’ll address a question on the blog, and perhaps it can become a regular feature.
In the Derby of the Romanians Who English Football-Watchers Have Heard Of, last Sunday evening Dan Petrescu’s CFR Cluj held their nerve to beat Gheorghe Hagi’s Viitorul 1-0, denying second-place FCSB (who beat Astra by the same score at the same time) any chance to pip them to the Liga 1 title. With CFR taking the only Champions League spot, FCSB, Craiova and Viitorul will all go into the Europa League qualifying rounds this summer. Meanwhile next Sunday’s Romanian Cup final will pit a resurgent Universitatea Craiova, who finished third, against Liga 2 runners-up Hermannstadt. Even if the underdogs win the cup, Sibiu’s finest will have no European adventure next season since they didn’t apply for a UEFA licence.
So, today’s question comes from loyal reader G.B., of Pipera: “Why don’t Steaua ever win anything any more?” Now, let’s assume that G.B. means to say ‘FCSB’, since of course the legal owners of the name ‘Steaua’ are in the fourth division and we need to postpone that discussion for a week or two until everything’s done and dusted down there. Our correspondent is presumably referring to the failure of the Football Club Formerly Known as Steaua to land a major domestic trophy in the last three seasons.
Well, straight away we can cheer our correspondent up a bit by reminding him/her that in fact FCSB did win the
prestigious League Cup only two years ago (in one of the three editions of that tournament before it was scrapped for being pointless). So it’s not so bad.
It is true, however, that since doing the double in 2014-15 – winning their third consecutive championship and their twenty-sixth overall – Romania’s most trophiest and best-supported club has finished second in the league every year. In that time they have not even made it to the final of the Romanian Cup: the past two seasons they have even been knocked out by little second-division teams, first Mioveni and then Hermannstadt.
As for Europe, a surprising 1-0 home-leg win over Lazio in the Europa League this season does not make up for the fact that, although the club has qualified for the Champions League for the past five years, it has not reached the group stage of the competition since 2013-14, has not won a match at that level for over a decade, and has not won a home game in the group stage of the Champions League since 1996.
And this in spite of the fact that, in the past three years, FCSB have been responsible for almost three-quarters of all Liga 1 clubs’ transfer spending. The club’s TV income, UEFA prize money, operating budget and wage bill are all consistently bigger than the rest. The recruitment strategy, however, is unimaginative and largely dependent on the owner’s knowledge of players, which means it is limited to the top half of Liga 1: since 2015, more than 92% of transfer fees paid by FCSB has gone to other Liga 1 clubs, chiefly Viitorul and Astra, while over 99% of the club’s own transfer income has come from overseas. So FCSB are the main buying club within Romania – and they prop up the opposition’s finances by buying their best players – but very much a selling club in the international context.
Perhaps the men hired to run the football team are to blame for this lack of success. Well, nobody has lasted longer than a year and a half as head coach since the 2005-06 season brought the league championship and a European semi-final. Under many of the fifteen managers since then (some of whom have had two or three spells in charge), FCSB has known some domestic success. But three league titles and two Romanian Cups in twelve seasons is a poor return.
Last summer the new coach, Nicolae Dică, seemed to have certain things to recommend him. Firstly, as a striker in the mid-2000s he had been an important player for the club. (He scored twice in that last Champions League group stage win.) Secondly, he had a good relationship with the club’s owner. And thirdly he was cheap: he is reportedly on just €100,000 per year, less than a third of what his predecessor took home. But his managerial experience was limited to a year and a half in charge of third-division club SCM Pitești. He has not been given a free hand: when Constantin Budescu (Romanian player of the year 2017) was dropped for his poor attitude in training, the temperamental midfielder rang the owner and was reinstated. Dennis Alibec (Romanian player of the year 2016) fell out with him too, but because the owner has taken against the mardy striker the player will be on his way this summer.
Although the likes of Gheorghe Hagi (who went on to win the league with his own team last year) and Costel Gâlcă (who won the double in his one season in charge) have complained about the owner’s attempted interference in team selection, it’s just what he does. This is nothing new: it’s been happening for as long as this owner has been in charge. (Read this Guardian piece from 2008 for an amusing flavour.) Even though he announced recently that he was retiring from being the patron of the club, nothing changed in his media statements. And there have been a flood of those this week. He intends to buy an English Championship club because he reckons he can make €100 million. He says he’s happy to buy a Dinamo player who was accused of stealing money and credit cards from team-mates’ bags in the dressing-room. He has installed surveillance equipment at the training ground so he can watch on the big telly* in his palace: if anyone badmouths the boss, they’ll be out on their ear. Etc. etc.
Which all helps him to dominate the media and eclipse the hard-won achievement of the team that actually won the league. The top two were the top two from mid-September onwards and all four head-to-head fixtures were 1-1 draws. The Transylvanians went through the play-off phase unbeaten, but without ever really catching fire and drawing too many games. FCSB kept pace with them all the way, and snuck to the top of the table as the end of the season was drawing near … until they slipped up and lost to Iasi on 5th May. CFR kept their heads to win their remaining two fixtures, and Petrescu has his second Liga 1 winner’s medal as coach.
CFR’s triumph came with little elan but plenty of organisation and defensive solidity. In 18 home matches they conceded a miserly five goals, but only scored 24. Opponents and the media have criticised their style, but Petrescu said after Sunday’s victory, “If we played like Barcelona we’d probably be in 8th place battling with Dinamo in the play-out.” The club president added, “We’re interested in the points, and in the end we’re champions.” After a change of ownership, an insolvency and several years of tightened purse-strings, this iteration is not like the CFR of five to ten years ago, when they were nouveau riche, the “Chelsea of Romania”, and mixed it with Man U in the Champions League. Now they have the chance to build something again, and Petrescu is happy to stay and play his part. Although not especially popular, he is professionally admired by the folks at FCSB, but the “Badger” has burnt a few bridges and is unlikely to want to work in that company. The FCSB owner has, in any case, announced this week that his driver-cum-PA will be head coach of the club – once he’s got his UEFA Pro licence.
So, G.B., if you were, hypothetically, running FC FCSB, maybe you’d do things differently and it would turn out great. But there’s no vacancy.