The Champions Of Romania

If you’ve heard of one Romanian club, odds are it’s Steaua Bucuresti. They’re the ones larger clubs out west are most likely to run into in the UEFA Champions League, even though this year they’re in the Europa League after qualifying defeat at the hands of Bulgaria’s Ludogorets Razgrad, who themselves just finished last in Champions League Group B. Two-time defending league champions, Steaua has a Romanian-best 25 league titles total, with #26 well on the way, to go along with an also-Romanian-best 21 national cups and the 1986 European Cup.

Steuea is also the place where the world in general learned the name Gheorghe Hagi, who showed up on what was to be a one-match loan for the 1987 European Super Cup and left for Real Madrid in the aftermath of the 1990 World Cup.

In the Europa League, Steaua is up against it. With one game to go, they sit third in their group, two points behind Denmark’s Aalborg BK, and to advance to the knockouts, they’ll need to not only beat visiting Dynamo Kiev on Thursday, they’ll also need Aalborg to lose or draw when they visit Portugal’s Rio Ave. But that has become a secondary problem for Steaua.

Steaua Bucuresti’s identity, aside from that which they create between the white lines, is tied to their association with the Romanian army. Army officers were the ones to found the club back in 1947, one of the nicknames they’ve acquired over the years is ‘Militarii’, their colors are that of the Romanian flag, and even though the club privatized in 1998, they’re still seen as the army club. Their stadium remains the property of the Ministry of Defense.

And so does the intellectual identity. When the club was privatized, it was set up to be run by a nonprofit, AFC Steaua Bucuresti, and run by Viorel Paunescu. Paunescu had permission to go ahead and keep using the Steaua identity, which was great, except for the fact that there were also shares in this organization that could be bought and sold. Paunescu was a cripplingly incompetent owner, and drove the team deeply into debt, which was at least partially combated by having some of the shares go to the creditors. This is when politician/buisinessman Gigi Becali, who doesn’t appear to have been one of the creditors, rode into the picture, managing to buy up 51% control of the club through methods that to this day haven’t fully been explained. In 2003, Becali, now in control, took the club public. But in taking control, he also took on the club debt, which he proceeded not to pay. In 2006, the Revenue Service targeted him and tried to freeze his assets to get the money, but lost in court when they tried to force payment. This is when Becali unloaded the shares onto easily-controllable friends and family.

A long string of other corruption-related run-ins with the law involving bribery, forgery, unlawfully detaining people and abuse of power resulted in Becali being sent to prison last year. But that still doesn’t get us where we’re going on our particular matter today. Clearly uncomfortable with a man like Becali representing their brand, the Ministry of Defense sought to revoke Steaua’s right to use the club imagery. This past Thursday, December 4th, Romania’s highest court ruled in the military’s favor, stripping Steaua Bucuresti to the rights to the name, logo or team colors, effective immediately. That meant that on Sunday, when the club faced currently relegation-zoned CSMS Iasi (an effect of the Romanian top flight downshifting this year from 18 teams to 14, making for six relegation spots instead of the usual two), Steaua was not able to call itself Steaua. On the scoreboard, only an empty square was present to stand in place of the logo. The club’s name was replaced with ‘GADZE’ on the scoreboard- ‘hosts’. The PA announcer referred to them as “the champions of Romania”. The club came out in a plain yellow jersey, their normal away outfits; their regular home colors are red and blue. Everywhere the team’s name could be removed, it was, and when it couldn’t, it was covered up. (Steaua won 1-0.)

The Ministry of Defense isn’t completely hardline. Tomorrow, for the Europa League game against Dynamo Kiev, ‘the champions of Romania’ will be permitted to once again call themselves Steaua Bucuresti. They have a one-week reprieve for the purpose, which is why their website hasn’t been stripped. But that’s pretty much it. Any future use is to be done at the pleasure of the Ministry of Defense, and given that things have reached this point, Steaua shouldn’t count on much more charity beyond that. They may end up resulting in a name change, though the more likely case is they’ll have to start paying for naming rights.

Of course, the money for something like that will have to be found. Beating Dynamo and having Aalborg lose to Rio Ave would certainly help towards that.

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