Some footballers have middling lives in the game. It’s a good career but nothing more, others seem to have a wild an winding time with the ball at their feet.
Gheorghe ‘Gica’ Popescu definitely belongs to the latter group, rubbing shoulders with legends, historic clubs, and controversy – it’s hard to figure out where to even start.
Popescu in action for Romania in a glittering 115-cap career with his national team
Perhaps it’s best to start with him rejecting a transfer to Real Madrid? Not many players have turned down the bright lights of the Bernabeu.
The reason behind the decision, back in 1990? Well, living in communist Romania he just didn’t know how big Los Blancos were.
In the current climate with globalisation and access to the internet, even in more restricted countries you can learn about the world but in a place like Romania at that point in time, it just wasn’t possible.
Footballers were some of the only people who did get to experience some of the world but, even so, knowledge was limited.
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And after one of his first experiences of football abroad it wouldn’t have been a surprise had he never left Romania again.
In 1988, Popescu – on loan from Universitatea Craiova – played for Steaua Bucharest against Rangers in the European Cup.
The Romanians won the first leg 2-0 at home and then travelled to Ibrox – in stepped Graeme Souness, although stamp is probably a better term.
He marked the game, eventually a 2-1 win for the Scots but with Steaua going through on aggregate, with a horrendous tackle on Iosif Rotariu.
He should have got ten red cards for it, Popescu said.
One of Graeme Souness victims told the story of a horrific tackle. During our morning show Romanian legend Iosif Rotariu (now 57) said his life could have been in danger following one of the worst tackles in football history.
— Costin tucan (@CostinStucan) March 11, 2019
And after the fall of communism in Romania in 1989, it wouldn’t be long before many of the nation’s talented stars scarpered around Europe.
Popescu left Craiova for PSV Eindhoven, many top European clubs had wanted the talented defender, who was also an exceptional ball-player.
You may not quite believe it but on YouTube you can get compilations of his goals, backed by thumping dance music, as if he were Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
There are flying headers, cool penalties, stunning volleys, walloped long rangers, divine dribbles, one goal even sees him run through a defence, chest down a pass, take on a goalkeeper and slide home.
We should reiterate, he was predominantly a defender or defensive midfielder.
Popescu during his time at PSV Eindhoven
Upon leaving his homeland he opted for the Dutch side ahead of Madrid and was a success in the first of his two spells under Sir Bobby Robson.
He spent four years in Eindhoven, where he was labelled Robson’s ‘jewel’ for the two title-winning years he spent under the Englishman, who he cleared adored.
Bobby Robson is the most beautiful person I met in football, Popescu said in part of an extensive interview with The Athletic.
He was a great, great man. He was always laughing and had a good relationship with everyone.”
Another two seasons followed without Robson and any additional success, despite the presence of legendary striker Romario for some of that, and the Romanian was on his way, this time for a one-year stint at Tottenham – who were in desperate need of a cultured defender.
Tactical systems across Europe varied, and Popescu, who had been a centre-back or sweeper, ended up playing in defensive midfield ahead of a young Sol Campbell.
A winning goal in against rivals Arsenal at White Hart Lane ensures he’s remembered fondly by those in north London.
He would later win them over again by netting the winning penalty against the Gunners in the 2000 UEFA Cup final for Galatasaray, although he doesn’t quite get the adulation of Nayim, who came back to haunt Spurs’ rivals when they played Real Zaragoza in the 1995 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final.
“I am sure the fans at my old club are delighted as well,” he said while celebrating the Turkish side’s victory.
Popescu shields the ball from Arsenal superstar Marc Overmars
Back in 1995, the step up from Tottenham to Barcelona was a little bigger than it is today, but it turned out it had pretty much always been the plan with football great Johan Cryuff wanting him before he’d even stepped foot in White Hart Lane.
Cruyff’s assistant Tonny Bruins Slot had been in contact, Ronald Koeman, the Catalan side’s great sweeper was set to retire, Popescu had been earmarked to replace him.
They were in contact through his time at Spurs and Popescu’s Dutch spell helped him greatly.
“I signed for Spurs and within the first week he called me again,” he explained to The Athletic. “He said No problem, you can play one season in England then come to Barcelona.
Popescu celebrates scoring for Tottenham
“Three months later I got another call and this time it was about tactics. He explained what they wanted from me and how we were going to play. Every two months I would spend half an hour speaking in Dutch about tactics as I was fluent.
After the season finished in England, Joan Gaspart [then vice president] came to a London hotel to meet with Alan Sugar [Spurs chairman]. Tottenham wanted another £400,000 but Barcelona refused.
“After hours of negotiations, I told them to take the £400,000 from the duration of my contract, put it on the table and make the deal. I paid for myself to get there as I said I dont need it. I had to play at Barcelona, even more so because I had said no to Real Madrid in 1990.
Popescu lifts the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup as captain of Barcelona
Like with Robson, Popescu was also enamoured with Cruyff saying in an interview: If he were a woman I would have asked him to marry me everyday. No one made me play with as much confidence as he did.” And also admitting: “if he had asked me to sleep in the locker room, I would have done it.”But the Dutchman left a season later. Lucky enough, it was Robson who replaced him, keeping Popescu happy, particular as his coach then named him captain ahead of a certain Pep Guardiola.
Popescu was highly-rated by Johan Cruyff
By the end of his career, Robson’s 13th most-used player was the Romania ace, despite having him for only three seasons.
Popescu, who won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in his second and final season at the Camp Nou is proud of his record, especially against Real, who he rejected a second time as he left Barcelona.
“I played six Clasicos and never lost,” he said. “I won three and drew three. Even the legends game I didnt lose.”
As you can gather, his next step was to Turkish giants Galatasaray, despite Barcelona wanting him to stay. It was Louis van Gaal’s actions, though, which saw him exit swiftly.
The Super Lig side wanted him and in the Dutchman’s attempts to woo Popescu, he pushed him out of the door.
Van Gaal spoke for half an hour without allowing the Romania ace a response – it didn’t go down well.
Galatasaray was time well spent for Popescu, winning the aforementioned UEFA Cup as well as three league titles, two cups, and the UEFA Super Cup.
Popescu went up against Michael Owen as Romania beat England 3-2 at Euro 2000
And yet with Popescu’s story, some of the most fascinating parts came off the field.
In 2014 he served one year and eight months in prison out of a total sentence of three years and one month he received for his part in money laundering and tax evasion in connection with transfer deals.
Meanwhile, Popescu, now 53, also revealed he had been an informer for Romania’s secret police during the communist era.
He admitted writing notes about four teammates during his spell with first club Universitatea Craiova but in an interview he defended his actions.
“Even if I wrote notes, I wrote good things,” he said. “I praised [those] people.”
No one can accuse the former Spurs ace of a quiet life in the beautiful game.