Beset by corruption, Romania implemented a radical scheme to clean up the game.

By Radu Timofte in Bucharest
Three years after reaching Liga 1 for the first time, Unirea Urziceni showed what can happen when corruption and refereeing scandals are eradicated.

Representing a minuscule town with less than 20,000 habitants, the little club from Ialomita County brought the footballing powers of Bucharest to their knees by winning the league title.

“There is a god of soccer, who brought foreign referees to our championship and so it was possible for the best team to win,” claimed Urziceni coach Dan Petrescu, the former Chelsea full-back who won 95 caps for his country. “Without foreign referees, Unirea would never have won the title.

“Win or lose with fair play, that’s what English football taught me.”

Urziceni president Mihai Stoica also believed the bias against his club helped to motivate the team, saying: “Our players are great men. They were always abused by almost of all our opponents, journalists and officials.

“Our players switched the negative energies to positive ones and this was the source of the biggest-ever surprise in Romanian football.”

The last 12 games involving the leading clubs were all refereed by foreign officials, and it was during this period that Urziceni and Timisoara came through to seal Champions League places as the big three from the capital lost important points and saw their title chances disappear.

Dinamo, leaders for most of the season, dropped to second place with two rounds to go. They fell even further, to third spot, two days after the league ended when the Court of Arbitration for Sport returned the six points it had deducted from Timisoara last year in a dispute over their identity.

Controversial club owner Gigi Becali saw his Steaua side finished way down the table in seventh place, though they did manage to sneak into next season’s Europa League because fourth-place CFR Cluj qualified as losing Romanian Cup finalists. Rapid missed out on Europe completely after they drew 2-2 at home to lowly Politehnica Iasi.

The call for non-Romanian referees came about after the arrest earlier in the season of Arges Pitesti owner Cornel Penescu, who was accused of bribing match officials. Soon after, chairman of the referees’ committee Gheorghe Constantin, three match officials – Aurelian Bogaciu, Sorin Corpodean and Marcel Savaniu – and referees’ observer Marcel Lica were also arrested after accusations they had received money to help Arges win.

As doubts began to grow over the results of other matches – and under pressure from several smaller clubs, the media and supporters in general – the Romanian Football Federation decided to introduce foreign referees.

Having ceded power to modest but industrious provincial teams, fans of the big three from Bucharest wasted no time in showing their displeasure.

Three thousand Steaua followers took to the streets to protest and called upon Becali to quit, while the police made 12 arrests after Dinamo fans invaded the pitch and interrupted the final game of the season as their side lost 5-2 away to Arges.

Steaua and Rapid also fired their coaches, as did defending champions CFR Cluj, and only seven of the 18 coaches in charge at the start of the season remained so at the end.

Petrescu heads a new generation of domestic coaches who include members of the Romania team that reached the 1994 World Cup quarter-finals – Ioan Ovidiu Sabau, Dorinel Munteanu, Gheorghe Hagi and Basarab Panduru.

And Razvan Lucescu, who led Brasov to within a point of European football, proved success with a lesser side can lead to bigger things when he was appointed national coach in April.