Unirea Urziceni: Romanian Football’s Icarus

Words by Euan Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 7, 2018

Icarus, the son of Daedalus, often woke in the morning looking up at the stars. They made him terribly melancholic. What are they like, Icarus would ponder, and why could he not reach them? Every morning, those little flickering promises toyed and played with the young boy. Why was life so unfair?

One morning, Daedalus came to Icarus, bearing a strange contraption.

‘What’s that?’ Icarus asked, his eyes wide.

‘Our way out of this prison,’ his father replied, and there was conviction in his voice.

Daedalus strapped his son into the contraption – a harness affixed with feathered wings – and they took flight alongside the birds. ‘Remember Icarus,’ Daedalus said as they soared over the oceans. ‘Don’t fly too high or the wax will melt.’

Of course, we know how this story ends. Daedalus underestimated the ambition of his son. Icarus, consumed by pride, reached the stars – the sun, in fact – and tasted its wrath. A boy lost in the oblivion of space, his wings melted, and he tumbled to his death.

My reason for telling this story is to highlight a trend. Icarus’ downfall pertains to many things in life, but it pertains especially well, I think, to a particular area of football. That area concerns bankrolled, sugar-daddied – or whatever terminology you elect to use – clubs. For clarity, I’m not referring to every club that receives substantial investments from one source – as these are innumerable – but to those clubs that live well beyond their modest means, consistently outspend larger clubs, and ultimately, fly too close to the sun. I’m referring to the most extreme examples; tiny community clubs, with attendances of 200, laughing their way to five consecutive promotions, and beating clubs ten times their size on the way.

Only these clubs ever truly run the risk of extinction. In the words of Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics, ‘football clubs almost never die.’ The Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of the world are racked by millions of debt but equally sustained by millions, if not billions, in revenue. The same is true of most clubs, albeit on a much smaller scale. It would be extremely unusual to see any established club die at the hands of one individual.

But football clubs do die, and when they do, Icarus’ story tends to stand the test of time. Allow me to illustrate with an example.

Urziceni lies within the Ialomița County of Romania, around an hour’s drive from Bucharest. Its population is less than twenty thousand, and in 2009, its local club, Unirea Urziceni, qualified for the Champions League group stages. Rangers fans will know the name well. In the more embarrassing annals of their history, they were humbled 4-1 by a club with a name their supporters could scarcely pronounce.

Unirea were the smallest club to ever qualify for the Champions League. They were because they no longer are – just two years after their fleeting dance on the world stage, the club dissolved.

Their rise and fall was of course, the product of a rich man. In 2002, a businessman, Dumitru Bucsaru, bought the club outright, under the company Valahorum SA. Romanian football, for perhaps the first time ever, fixed its eyes on the small town of Urziceni.

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Unirea had spent the best part of their history in the lower divisions of Romanian football. There is frankly, very little to be said about this period. Post-2002 offers rather more. Under Bucsaru, the cash started flowing, and five years on, Unirea found themselves in Liga 1, battling it out with the big boys. By 2009, Unirea were celebrating their first (and last) title in the top division. The inhabitants of Urziceni still went about the rigours of everyday life, just with the knowledge that their little town was the best in Romania.

It remains far too easy to dismiss these achievements. Money played a huge role, of course, but this is football, and money cannot organise a team or score a goal. That requires tactical acumen, and astute leadership. Dan Petrescu had both in bucketloads. The former Chelsea player, put simply, knew how to win. Under his management, Unirea were cynical, ugly, resolute and effective. In their title winning season, they conceded only twenty goals, often winning by a single goal margin. They became synonymous with gritty one nil victories.

As they held the trophy aloft, it was difficult for their opponents to view them as anything but minnows. It was true; they were minnows about to play the likes of Stuttgart and Sevilla on the world stage, and indeed, their performance in the Champions League exceeded all expectations: eight points collected, including victories over Rangers and Sevilla. Only a final day loss against Stuttgart prevented progression into the knockout phase. The fans were not too disheartened; this was the highest points tally a Romanian club had ever amassed in the competition. Little Unirea were making records.

But even as the players filed back to Romania, the clock began to tick. Bucsaru was planning his get-out strategy. Petrescu left first, midway through the next season. Though Unirea lost out on the title by only three points, their time was coming to an end. Bucsaru had accomplished everything – and more – that he had set out to do. Ahead of the 2010/11 season, he sold off Unirea’s key players, replaced them with untried youngsters, and sat back, hands behind head, watching as they slid to relegation. But the story was not over; soon after, Bucsaru departed, money and memories in pocket, leaving behind a debt of 1.5 million euros. This was his legacy.

And it was one which proved fatal.

Now Unirea lie, scattered ashes in a graveyard. A cloud of contempt and sadness hangs over the dead. To the right of Unirea, people bearing shovels dig into the dirt. They are creating fresh space, and in a few years time, another club will fill the emptiness. The headstone is already emblazoned with a name.

Icarus’ story has always carried a clear moral, and that is simply to avoid pursuing unrealistic goals. I think, however, that this is too simplistic a summation. Icarus only ever looked to the stars with resignation, and with a sort of youthful wonder. There was never any intention to travel there. That is, until Daedalus handed him the key. Unirea fans no doubt looked to Liga 1 in the same way; it was a pinnacle well beyond their reach, but a pinnacle they dreamed of climbing nonetheless. This is not a contemptible sentiment; indeed, it is a universal truth that the question of ‘what if’ will always plague supporters of lower-league clubs.

This is what the money-men facilitate; they make the impossible possible with a click of the fingers. They enter the room wielding their smiles, and their reassurances, and their money, and their intentions may well be honest, at first. Daedalus never meant for his son to fly so close to the sun, after all, but he watched on helplessly all the same. He had constructed the means and permitted Icarus his wild fantasy.

Sometimes, the intentions of these money-men may be disingenuous from the beginning, but ultimately the distinction remains unimportant. Sacrificing a club to the whims of one man, whatever his motivation may be, will always constitute a risk. What was once unadulterated excitement can easily turn to boredom overnight. This is simply befitting of a human nature. And when the club’s waxen wings melt, because they always do, these men can turn and look at the destruction in their wake, safe in the knowledge that theirs remain intact.

Looking back, will Unirea fans regret the entire set of circumstances which led to their demise? This is, I think, difficult to answer. They tasted the sweetest fruit in the garden. They looked upon the sun in all its magnificence, and that is something few others can lay claim to. But of course, retribution followed; Unirea were flying, but unnaturally; their artificial wings flapped with incoordination, whilst the clubs around them soared with ease. They didn’t belong in the air with Champions League and Romanian giants. And so this was how it was destined to end, eventually; a swift plummet through the skies, passing by swallows wearing knowing smiles, before a conclusive drop into the ocean’s depths.

But for clubs today, who find themselves following a similar trajectory, there may be hope. Icarus’ friends may be waiting as he descends, arms outstretched. And as he lands into their soft embrace, and looks up at the stars, he may ponder to himself, I’ve been to the stars, but you know what, it’s not so bad down here.

What are you looking for?