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The almighty one

The arrest of Steaua Bucharest’s zealous owner has sparked hope that his power might finally be waning, writes Jonathan Wilson

For the Steaua Bucharest owner Gigi ­Becali to berate underperforming players is nothing unusual; what is less common is for the player to answer back, particularly with the wit (at least, you assume he was joking) shown by Dayro Moreno. The Colombian forward’s form has been poor since the winter break, and Becali, using his coach Marius Lacatus as a translator, was pointing out his deficiencies with characteristic robustness. “Dayro,” he said finally. “What’s wrong with you?” “Boss,” Moreno, “my form has dipped because I was so worried about you when you were arrested.” Becali, as he tends to be when his ego is flattered, however mockingly, was charmed. “He may act like a child,” he said, “but he’s the only real footballer we have.”

Moreno, though, isn’t the only one troubled by Becali’s arrest, less because of the thought of the man named Romania’s Homophobe of the Year in 2006 rotting in jail, but because of what it might signal about the future direction of Romanian football. Eleven days after Becali’s arrest, Cornel Penescu, the owner of Arges Pitesti, and Gheorghe Constantin, the head of the refereeing commission, were arrested on corruption charges, and three referees were subsequently detained by police as part of the same investigation.

Was this a sign that some of the sacred cows weren’t so sacred any more? It wouldn’t be the first time that declining fortunes of the national side had led to efforts to rid Romanian football of the match-fixing that continues to be a blight. Penescu, it is claimed, paid sums ranging from $3,980 to $71,675 to four Romanian clubs to throw games against Arges.

Becali, though, is a different matter. In his bombastic way, he has dominated Romanian football since acting as agent for several major players – including Gheorghe Hagi – as the Romanian market opened up in the early Nineties. If the football authorities are turning on someone who has somehow escaped unscathed from myriad scandals in the past – alleged match-fixing, intimidation, assaults on journalists, sacking a Turkish coach “for being too Muslim”, banning the playing of Queen songs at the ground because of Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality – that really would be evidence of a belief that, as Octavian Morariu, the head of the Romanian Olympic Committee, put it, “it’s time to clean up our act”.

It seems, though, that the timing is mere coincidence and that Becali’s detention had nothing to do with football. He was arrested on April 3 and charged with kidnapping three men who had stolen his car. Bucharest prosecutors said he and six employees had attacked the three men in January, locking them in the boot of a car and driving them to a village outside Bucharest. They were released there, but at some stage it is alleged that one of the men was shot in the leg.

Becali insists the whole thing is a set-up, and that the men, after stealing his Mercedes, had demanded hush money not to tell police about the alleged kidnapping. He was released on April 17, a decision celebrated by hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside the prison in which he was being held. During his spell in prison ­Becali, who once commissioned an artist to produce a copy of the Last Supper with himself in the Jesus role, again compared himself to the Son of God, shouting “Barabbas is free. Christ is crucified” and shaking his handcuffed fists at journalists. On his release, he went straight to a church to give thanks for his release and announced his intention to stand for election to the European parliament in June.

But even if this latest incident is not related to football, Becali still faces charges relating to last season’s championship, when a string of unusual refereeing decisions saw Steaua almost reel in CFR Cluj. “God doesn’t mind being offside,” he said after yet another controversial late winner.

Perhaps not, but the authorities did mind a number of his henchmen being discovered with suitcases full of cash on the final weekend of the season. They were, Becali said, going to buy a plot of land, and were absolutely, categorically, definitely not anything to do with a $1.7 million bribe to win the league. That charges were laid at all perhaps indicates a greater willingness to act by the Romanian FA than they have shown before.

The hope must be that his arrest demonstrates the tide is turning against him, and that Becali will at last be called to account. Although you fear what that might do to poor Moreno.

From WSC 268 June 2009

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