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Corruption trials are casting long, dark shadows over Romanian football.

By Radu Timofet in Bucharest
Last May in the western city of Cluj, Steaua Bucharest vice-president Teia Sponte, Universitatea Cluj president Anton Dobos, Universitatea Cluj winger Gigel Coman and Steaua defender Petre Marin were arrested by prosecutors and charged with attempted bribery.

They had been caught with a suitcase containing more than £1.5million in cash. The money was intended for Universitatea Cluj players ahead of their league game against leaders CFR Cluj. A defeat for CFR Cluj would have opened the door for Steaua to snatch the title if they won their last game of the season.

The trial against the four and Steaua owner Gigi Becali – the man believed to be behind the bribery attempt – began in January but has since been postponed twice. When it restarts, the question will once again be posed: is offering financial incentives to a team to encourage them to beat another team legal?

National coach Victor Piturca also appeared at the trial and faces the accusation that he gave a false testimony to help Becali demonstrate that the £1.5m was intended for a business deal and not for Universitatea Cluj’s players.

The case may be shocking but it is nothing new. Two years ago, Becali, one of the country’s most influential businessmen, was caught by TV cameras following the Gloria Bistrita team bus with a plastic bag stuffed full of money. The cash, he later admitted, was intended to encourage the Gloria players to beat Rapid Bucharest, the closest challengers to Steaua in the title race.

Becali defended his gesture: “Offering money to another team in order to encourage them to beat another team is not a bribe, it’s just a way of making things more competitive.”

Romanian football has a long history of teams being “rewarded” for dropping points against particular opponents. Points gifted by a draw or defeat were often “returned” at a later date in the season. The principle of “you win at home, I win at home” dominated domestic football after the fall of communism in December 1989. Many suspect that the so-called “Cooperativa” was used to decide who won the title, who played in the European competitions and who was relegated.

Then, in 2000, an unofficial meeting of leading football officials declared an end to “dirty” stories in the domestic game. The participants – who included the sports minister, the Romanian football federation president Mircea Sandu and the professional league president Dumitru Dragomir – declared the meeting to be Romanian football’s “Moment Zero”. It was supposed to herald a new clean era.

Supporters hoped they would be watching a more honest competition, but the media have been left to expose the same old stories of corruption.

By 2007, anti-corruption prosecutors had compiled a 20,000-page file for a fraud trial involving several high-profile figures, including George Copos, the owner of Rapid Bucharest and a former deputy prime minister; Cristian Borcea, Dinamo Bucharest executive president; Mihai Stoica, former Otelul Galati executive president; Jean Padureanu, Gloria Bistrita president for the past 35 years; player agents Victor and Giovani Becali; and the former international Gica Popescu, himself an agent for several years.

Between 1999 and 2005, it has been alleged that 12 players – including Paul Codrea (who joined Genoa), Ionel Ganea (Stuttgart), Nicolae Mitea (Ajax), Florin Cernat (Dinamo Kyiv), Cosmin Contra (Alaves) – had left their Romanian clubs for much smaller fees than the official declared figures, thus avoiding taxes and allowing the accused to pocket the difference.

The prosecutors alleged that the foreign clubs bypassed their Romanian counterparts by paying transfer fees into bank accounts in overseas tax havens.

In 2004, striker Florin Bratu left Rapid Bucharest for Galatasaray for a transfer fee of £2m, but only £70,000 made it to Rapid Bucharest’s account.

In total, prosecutors estimate that the clubs – Dinamo and Rapid Bucharest, Otelul Galati and Gloria Bistrita – missed out on around £7.8m. The Romanian taxman, meanwhile, lost £1m in unpaid taxes and the Romanian federation lost £400,000 in registration fees.

Popescu has since pleaded guilty, paid around £284,000 in back taxes and quit as an agent, but he hasn’t been able to avoid a court appearance.

Both trials were due to restart at the end of March, but the defendants were doing everything they could to delay proceedings. In the meantime, fans have been left to reflect on just how crooked Romanian football remains.

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