Tom Wood –
It has been rather a tentative start to 2017 for Romania. The newly sworn-in center left social democratic government, led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeau, secretly voted for an ordinance which would mean wide scale decriminalization of government corruption. In response, Bucharest saw its largest protests since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu, reports suggesting that, at its peak, over half a million people protested on a single day in early February. One such protester was the colorful and controversial right wing politician and current Steaua Bucharest owner, Gigi Becali.
Becali, along with Zdravko Mamić, and others in Eastern Europe, are part of that dying Berlusconi-esque breed of chairman. His extravagant and lavish spending, blatant disregard for any form of self-moderation, coupled with the odd spontaneous and vocal outbursts of xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny, has made Becali well known in Romania.
One would be correct in concluding that seeing a man with such a horrendous moral and ethical track record protesting against government corruption, is confusing to say the least. Hypocrisy also emerges when one further examins Becali’s own path to riches, which is riddled with wrongdoing.
Steaua Bucharest and the power of Gigi Becali
In the aftermath of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu’s executions in 1989, Romania took its first bold steps out of the quagmire of communism and into the land of capitalism and free market economies. It was at this stage that former locksmith, Gigi Becali, entered the fray.
Becali chose to exploit Romania’s changing economic landscape and started to import designer shirts, suits, jeans and other items of clothing, as well as cigarettes from Turkey and other countries previously unable to trade with Romania. With the money earned from retailing, Becali branched into real estate. Housing prices soared after the revolution as Romania’s situation improved and real estate proved to be an extremely lucrative area of business in which to be involved. After years of investments paying off, Becali was now a mogul in his own right.
In 1999 he began to open negotiations with Romania’s Ministry of Defence regarding a certain “land swap”. To say that the deal was shifty would be a huge understatement. The Ministry of Defence lost over £6 million in the exchange. It was discovered that prior to the swap, Becali owned absolutely zero of the land he was negotiating with, and acted only on the assurance that officials within the Ministry and the Romanian Army would approve the deal. For a man who now cries out over the injustice of corruption within Romanian society, it’s interesting to see how opaque Becali’s own business dealings were.
It was not long before Becali become involved with Romania’s most successful football club and former European Champions Steaua Bucharest. A lifelong supporter of the club, Becali’s financial sponsorship led to a revitalisation of the former European champions after their turbulent separation from the Romanian Army and a poor first presidential term under fellow Romanian businessman Viorel Păunescu. By 2003, Becali had acquired complete control of the club and turned Steaua Bucharest into a public company. However, it was the way in which Gigi took control of the club that ultimately led to incredible trouble for himself and the Romanians over a decade down the line.
Becali’s dodgy deal cost Steaua their name
The “dodgy deal” over the matter of exchanging land with Romania’s Ministry of Defence ultimately came back to bite Becali, and the move landed him in prison for 3 years. It was at this point that things started to go bizzare for Steaua.
With Becali imprisoned, a massive battle over the rights for the club’s name, badge and history ensued. Aggressive shareholders and influential individuals around the club pounced on opportunities to profit from the disorder, seeking damages from the man who had funded Steaua for previous 10 years. After a period of lengthy court cases, numerous rulings, and a lot of bad blood between both parties, in early December last year, it was ruled that, under Romanian law, Becali’s incarnation of Steaua Bucharest were no longer allowed to use the club’s name.
This predicament, therefore, leaves supporters in the tricky situation of having to decide what team to support. Fans now have the option of supporting either Becali’s perverted version of Steaua Bucharest who possess money and a place in Romania’s top flight, but without the Steaua name and now somewhat stripped of a history, or an army-led newly-formed Steaua Bucharest who, with a lot less capital than Steaua, have to spend seasons toiling in the lower divisions of Romanian football.
Becali, known his frequent outbursts of brash and extraordinary rhetoric, has incredibly claimed that he’s willing to prevent the new Steaua Bucharest’s progression through the leagues by buying other clubs from the same division and investing in their squads— which seems almost comical. Becali’s money is one of the larger factors that may dissuade fans from turning their attention to Romania’s lower leagues to watch the new Steaua in action. Recently, the owner, looking rather optimistically to relive the feats of Steaua’s immortal 1986 side, announced plans to invest a great deal of money into the squad in the hope of once more challenging for the UEFA Champions League.
Steaua are currently second in the league, sitting only a few points behind Gheorghe Hagi’s brainchild, FC Viitorul Constanta—the Romanian footballing icon acting as both the club’s manager and owner. Only founded in 2009, the outfit from Romania’s eastern coast has come along in leaps and bounds since their beginnings in the third division.
The emergence of Viitorul could hurt FC FCSB
The emergence of Viitorul who, by incorporating the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy into their set up have developed arguably one of the best youth programs in South East Europe, alongside the rise of West Ham United’s favorite football team, FC Astra, Giurgiu and the likes of CFR Cluj, has provided an injection of much-needed competitiveness into Liga 1.
For Viitorul and Hagi, winning the title would solidify their position as one of Romania’s new breed of top clubs. It could, however, prove to be extremely detrimental for Becali’s new project, as missing out on a league title and, as a result, Champions League football, may drive Steaua purists to the Third Division.
While it could be a reasonable concern, Becali seems unfazed and optimistic, stating that “the fans will follow me”, and with rumors floating around that Steaua are after Florinel Coman and Dragoș Nedelcu, two of Viitorul’s youngest and brightest prospects from this season, it seems that Steaua will certainly invest, league title or not.
After months of uncertainty over the new name going forward for Becali’s Steaua, it was finally announced only days ago that FC Steaua Bucharest are now to be known as FC FCSB. While the naming choice was confusing to say the least, it’s a smart move on Becali’s part, providing a lot of cover against any future legal cases that the Romanian Army may direct toward the club.
It is also a more promising name than the proposed Football Club Sport Becali that had been registered before the name change was made—news of this idea sending large proportions of the footballing world into palpable hysteria. With the club’s official website now altered and UEFA’s homepage recognizing the FC FCSB name, it seems that the chosen title is now here to stay. Only time will tell, however, whether the project will truly flourish.
Tom Wood is from South Benfleet Essex, and is currently an A Level Student at Southend High School For Boys, hoping to study History and Eastern European Studies at degree level.Tom is a long suffering but devoted Tottenham Hotspur fan,who is also passionately interested by the culture and politics of European and Eastern European football.Tom is particularly interested in football played in the Balkans, and is fascinated by the immense role that football supporters played in contributing to Yugoslavia’s breakup and the subsequent wars that followed. Follow Tom on Twitter @EFJtomwood