By Charlie Scott
On the 19th February 2010, Liverpool played host to Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni in the first leg of their Europa League Knockout Stage tie. Both sides had high expectations for the game having each finished third in their Champions League Groups, therefore narrowly missing out on qualification to the knockout stage of Europe’s elite competition and instead being filtered through into the Europa League.
An emphatic 4-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox and an impressive 1-0 victory at home to Sevilla left Unirea’s manager Dan Petrescu and owner Dumitru Bucşaru full of confidence going into the latter games of the group stages. However, Unirea failed to collect another win and agonisingly missed out on second place in the group by a single point, with VFB Stuttgart progressing ahead of them.
A high-profile Europa League tie against Liverpool slightly softened the blow but their time in the Europa League was short-lived after, despite limiting Liverpool to a single goal at Anfield, they went on to lose the home leg 3-1, making it 4-1 to Liverpool on aggregate.
Despite their disappointment in Europe their domestic form showed little sign of abating and their impressive league win from the previous season was followed up by a second place finish at the end of 2009-2010, thereby securing a second consecutive appearance in the Champions League. Fate dealt them a cruel hand on this occasion though as they were paired with Zenit St. Petersburg in the third qualifying round for the group stages. Zenit’s mercurial midfielder Danny dealt the fatal blow to Unirea’s Champions League aspirations with a well-taken goal in the second leg that proved decisive as Zenit won 1-0 on aggregate.
No-one could have predicted what would happen next. As the Champions League revenue disappeared before his eyes Bucşaru lost all interest in the club. Less than 12 months after narrowly losing to Zenit, Unirea as a club is practically dead.
The writing was clearly on the wall long before that. Petrescu abruptly jumped ship when the Russian side Kuban Krasnodar came knocking after leading Unirea to their third place finish in the Champions League group stage. The club never recovered from this. Petrescu was popular amongst the players and fans and leaving the club midway through the season suggested something was awry behind the scenes.
The owner Bucşaru’s behaviour 8 months later following the defeat to Zenit, suggests that Petrescu did well to get out when he did. Bucşaru tore the team apart in search of cash with 6 players being sold to Steaua Bucharest alone including Romanian internationals Marius Bilasco and Iulian Apostol, while their Lithuanian goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis joined Rubin Kazan. Bucşaru’s destruction of a team that had just months before held their own against some of Europe’s top sides was brutal in its brevity and ruthlessness. Following the departures of all the squad’s key players, Bucşaru filled their positions with players on loan from the reserve teams of Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest. Unsurprisingly the team’s performances went out the window just as the players had, and at the end of the 2010-2011 season the club was relegated to Romania’s second tier, Liga II.
Just five years have passed since Unirea were last outside the top division and in those five years they have gone from the pinnacle of Romanian football and the brink of the Champions League knockout stage, with a talented group of internationals, to a squad of loanees deemed surplus to requirements by the very rival teams they had outclassed on the way to winning the league in 2009. What makes Unirea’s dramatic rise and fall even sourer is the manner in which it has occurred. The relegation and dismantling of the squad was completely out of the player’s control, it was instead crafted by the man who should want the club to succeed more than anyone else, the club’s owner.
Following their relegation Bucşaru displayed even greater disrespect for not only his club but also the Romanian League by refusing to apply for a license for the team for the 2011-2012 season, in effect killing the club. His refusal has led to the Romanian federation banning the club from all competitions next season, meaning even if someone took over the club they could still not register the team.
As the signs outside the club’s stadium in rural Romania gather rust and fall apart the small town of Urziceni adjusts to life without their briefly successful football club. Bucşaru’s unerring contempt for Unirea has turned a fairytale into a nightmare.
You can follow Charlie Scott on Twitter @charlie_scott10.