The Romanian world of football is about to experience the biggest surprise of all times. Unirea Urziceni, the team of a city of only 17,000 people is one step away from becoming Romania’s football champion. In the last round of League I the team has to register at least a draw in its home-side game against Steaua Bucharest while the latter in turn needs a victory in order to qualify for the Europa League. Unirea Urziceni would already have been champion if it weren’t for FC Timisoara waiting for the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, a verdict that will be issued today. FC Timisoara could win back the six points with which it was penalized. If it will obtain these points and will also win its last round game against FC Brasov while Unirea loses its game against Steaua then FC Timisoara will win the League I title. Nevertheless the chances are slim.
However how did a ‘small’ team like Unirea Urziceni end up in the position of winning the League I title at the expense of ‘heavy-weights’ Steaua, Dinamo, Rapid and last year’s champion CFR Cluj?
The Romanian press is awash with comments and analyses on this issue and the explanations vary. Basically two explanations are outlined. One would be that the quality of the internal football championship has dropped and, on the backdrop of this deterioration, an average team took over the lead. A second explanation has to do with the League I being ‘rid’ of match-fixing and backstage deals in which the big teams were more or less involved.
The truth is probably somewhere in-between. Former great players, young and ambitious and not at all willing to get involved in off-the-pitch dealings, became head coaches. Dan Petrescu, Razvan Lucescu and Ovidiu Sabau are only some examples. With their previous prestige and their will to make a name for themselves the young head coaches earnestly started to work and they did what they could (but on the pitch), obtaining notable achievements.
Even FC Brasov, a team coached by Razvan Lucescu, the current head coach of the national football team, holds an honourable 9th place with 52 points. The honour is even greater since the team freshly entered League I last season.
On the other hand the big teams faced problems generated both by the club leaderships and by the players’ behavior. Steaua, Rapid, CFR Cluj and FC Timisoara have sacked several head coaches throughout the 2008-2009 season, something that created instability and uncertainty for the players. Moreover, unfortunate investments in expensive players were made, players that then failed to produce the expected results. Dinamo Bucharest, the team that has topped the League I standings for almost the entire length of the season and that was already preparing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in its history, faced other shortcomings. It kept the same head coach (Mircea Rednic) but the results were mediocre. It registered good games against the big teams but it lost a lot of points at the hands of small teams, registering double defeats at the hands of Unirea Urziceni and FC Brasov. With a leadership that is far from homogenous, consisting of several investors, the decisions taken on investments were a compromise and the results are now showing it. Dinamo has lost its chances of winning the championship and if FC Timisoara will receive its 6 points back then Dinamo will find itself on the 3rd place. The club’s internal problems are now surfacing, coming on the heels of the disappointment registered. The head coach is accused of tolerating the players’ far too relaxed attitude and of not leading the training sessions in a coherent fashion. And the star-players did not have good relations with their head coach. On the other hand we find out that a significant part of the players are leading a life incompatible with sports performance, spending sleepless nights in pubs.
Irrespective of the reasons for which Unirea Urziceni has come to top the League I, they do not dint the merits of head coach Dan Petrescu, the former player of Chelsea London. He took over a mediocre team. He brought in players that were sacked or turned down by the League’s big teams and remade them into well-performing players. He introduced modern training methods such as going straight into training camp after the end of the games – following Real Madrid’s recipe. Narcis Raducan, Unirea’s sports director, explained: ‘after the game the players are at a low ebb from a physical point of view and if they also go out in clubs their physical recovery the next day is impossible. This way they remain in the training camp even if they are unable to sleep, they stay in their rooms and their physical shape is optimal during the next day’s recovery session.’
On the other hand the investments in players were modest but had unexpected returns. The stability of the leadership mattered a lot, head coach Dan Petrescu recently signing another 3-year contract with an annual wage of EUR 500,000. On the other hand, unlike other football club financiers that went on TV shows and constantly insulted each other, thus creating a state of animosity at team level too, the owner of Unirea Urziceni was completely discrete. Dumitru Bucsaru is quasi-unknown in the Romanian world of football but he knew how and where to invest and who to listen to. He gave Dan Petrescu a free hand and never intervened to overrule the head coach.
It is indubitable that both Unirea Urziceni and head coach Dan Petrescu deserve congratulations. It is a unique moment and the reward will most likely be a presence in the Champions League. Players without haughtiness and with the desire to make a name for themselves have taught the ‘pretentious’ one a lesson. Turned down by other teams, at Unirea Urziceni they found the place where they can achieve results. And they did.
Through its accomplishment Unirea Urziceni has given a moral slap to the Romanian football’s potentates that boast with directing and arranging important things. After being rid of match-fixing maybe the Romanian football should also be rid of the ‘dinosaurs’ that lead the responsible bodies of the most beloved sport in Romania and that have maintained for years a state of… irresponsibility. They are the ones that oversaw the Romanian championship’s competitiveness drop and the time has come for Dan Petrescu’s generation to take over the reins at this level too. The difference in quality is seen in the performances achieved by the new generation of head coaches.