The Lord's Shepherd
Gigi Becali on the future of Steaua Bucharest, God, money and why he's always misinterpreted
Steaua is one of the biggest names in Eastern European football. After a long-running and bitter between the Romanian Army (the Communist-era patron of the club) and billionaire Gigi Becali, Steaua was cut in two. With a long-term legal battle threatening the club's future, Becali is currently left with a club called FCSB in the Romanian top flight, while the Army created a new team called Steaua, who currently play in the fourth tier.
A former shepherd, Becali became a billionaire after the fall of Communism in 1989. His real estate investments and land deals earned him hundreds of millions. But he wasn't famous, so he decided to involve himself in the biggest football club in the country.
Why did you want to become a football club owner?
I wanted it for the celebrity! I wanted the world to know me, I wanted publicity. With time, I changed my way of thinking, my approach to life. I came closer to God; I want to get rid of what's material in my life. I can't at this point but that's my goal, that's what I want. Steaua were also like a toy for me, but also from the business point of view, it's great. I think that football is the best business there is.
Because we don't know what will happen in 10 or 20 years' time. The most secure investment will be in football. It's a great business now, but in 10 years it will be even bigger. What if money doesn't exist in 10 years? What if the biggest banks collapse? What if everything goes crazy? Anything can happen. Maybe those who control the money in this world decide to gather everything, I don't know. We're just talking hypothetically here. And what can they do regarding football? You can't stop it! Its value will continue growing and growing. It will be worth hundreds, billions of Euros. It's like going to the theatre. The play will be bigger and better. And world leaders will always encourage it because it keeps people entertained. Like the gladiators in ancient Rome. You have to deliver the circus to the people. Everyone needs to keep his mind busy with something. And football will always be one of those things.
Is the football industry based mainly on human emotion, do you feel?
Almost everything that exists in this world has entered a virtual era. You can't play football virtually, you can't kill feelings. The only activity that still relies on the human more than anything is sport. It's entertaining, a play that becomes more and more valued as time goes by. The world's population is getting bigger, more and more people go out to see the play. It's normal that the actors cost more and more. They produce money through the media, through sponsorship. It's a business that never stops because it's based on people's emotions.
Can you imagine yourself not being a football club owner?
Now, my family is close to me, I live with my wife and three daughters. But, towards the end of my life, I would like to go and live in a monastery. I want to become a monk. You can't own a football club while being a monk. I want to have everything in life. And in order to have everything I need to let everything go. That's what the Holy Fathers say. I want to know my family is well, I want to know my daughters are well, my nephews also. Then, goodbye, I'm off to the monastery to live in prayer. That's what I want, that's on my mind right now. I'm not ready yet. I'm still close to what's material. Maybe in 10 or 15 or 20 years, I'll be ready. I'm studying. I feel a call. We'll see if it's possible to make the plan happen. But you have to know that even when I ask God for something material it's not for me, I just want to do good for others. I know I will have to fight great wars to become what I want on a spiritual level.
Did you grow up as a football fan? Do you like football?
I wasn't too interested in football at the beginning. But a few years ago I stopped watching so much TV, the gossip channels, even current affairs or politics. There's too much sin on TV. There's a lot of sex, there are temptations everywhere. I don't like that kind of channel anymore. Now, I'm just on the Romanian sports channels. Being there all day long, I started liking football. I have to watch something, right?
And which teams do you enjoy watching?
I like Barcelona, PSG. I think Messi is the greatest player ever, of all time and of all histories combined. I don't think there will be anyone like him. But if Barcelona and PSG are playing at the same time, I'd watch PSG. I like Neymar. I love art in football. I like him a lot, a lot! I'm not talking about worth here, because Messi is maybe 10 times more valuable than Neymar, but I still like watching Neymar. I love him on the ball. I like art and that's what he does: football art!
So, if you ever had the opportunity to sign a great name, would it be Neymar or Messi?
It's Neymar who I like watching most, but if I wanted to win, I'd bring Messi in. You can't compare the two. You can't compare Messi to Ronaldo or to anyone else. There's no other player like Leo!
When you became the owner of Steaua, in 2003, did you have an objective? Did you want to beat anyone in particular?
I always wanted to be number one wherever I was in charge. In Romania, I did what nobody thought possible. My rivals from a few years ago are now out of football or have gone bankrupt with their teams. We managed to win against Chelsea in the Europa League, to get to the semifinals of the Uefa Cup in 2006, we beat Valencia, we played Real Madrid, Arsenal, Lyon, Bayern in the Champions League group stage. Chelsea had a budget 15 times bigger than ours when we beat them, in 2013. It's a big thing for my club! I became friends with the presidents at Real, Lyon, Sevilla. They were good times! If someone told me I was going to be second in what I do, I would have never entered football. I'm not interested in small things. I want the maximum! I was always greedy, I have never been happy with scraps. This is how I am. Now I want to transform this greediness into something spiritual. I want to be greedy for spiritual joy, for Christ. I want to go towards him and let everything else go. Like the apostles did!
What do you want to prove now in football?
I'm in the business for the money. And what I want to prove is that when God wants, you can beat the richest in this sport. I want money to invest it in my charities. I want to get money so I can do good! I want to beat Real, Barcelona and, most of all, PSG. And the English, of course, because that's the league where the big money is. Talking about the money pumped into one club, I'd say PSG is the club I want to win against. Then I want to win against Manchester City because they are richer than Manchester United. That's my objective for the next four or five years. God made football through His people. God can help me beat the big clubs. I want to prove that I can win in His name! You know what was written in the Bible about David and Goliath. David was a kid, while Goliath was a beast!
In Europe, not many fans know about the players in your team. But they know you.
Why do you think that is?
We are living in times when people think that you are crazy if you don't agree with them. I am not like everyone else. And because I'm not, some say I'm crazy. I love people. If I made some statements regarding homosexuals in the past it's not because I hate them. I love everyone.
Context doesn't help you much either. As was the case with the “no women in football” statement you made recently.
I respect women a lot. I love one woman only! What I said about women and football was out of love. I think women are sensitive and beautiful and that they need to be protected, not exposed. They now say I'm crazy and discriminating against women. Who loves women more than me? I have a wife whom I'll love until the day I die. Who loves women more? Those who have two or three girlfriends at a time? Or those with five or six marriages? I don't think a man should get married more than once. I love and protect my wife. Those who leave women, those who treat them badly, who speak dirty in front of them are good and I am bad, right? OK, then I am crazy and they aren't. I am discriminating and they are loving and respecting women. [laughs]
You ran for the presidency of Romania and you were the leader of a political party. Also, you were elected as a Member of the European Parliament and as a Member of the Romanian Parliament. Have your political ambitions disappeared completely?
I'm not interested in politics. I don't want glory for myself. It's fake glory! But you have to think about what you are able to give to your country. If you see some people who are good for nothing ruling the country, you must not sit back and watch. If you see that people love you and support you and that you have the intelligence to do something for them, you must act. It's possible that I do something in the future on a political level. I don't want to run myself. I know some people whom I trust and I could promote. I would only work for the people, for the poor. That's our mission: the powerful must protect the weak. Unfortunately, the world is upside down right now: those who have the power try to smash the weak. I'm not interested in power for myself, I want to defend and protect the poor.
I know you are a fan of Donald Trump…
He not only met my expectations but exceeded them! He is astonishing! I couldn't imagine he would be a president with such energy. I knew he was strong, he did a lot of things in his life. But to do so many things so fast – that's incredible. America is great again like he says. And he is 72! I'm amazed by the decisions he makes, by his wisdom. He is against the entire world and still succeeds. Even a big part of America is against him, but his strongest allies are the people! What he does now will be felt in the cost of living for normal citizens, life will improve for most.
Is it true that he wanted to do business with you, to build a Trump-Becali tower?
A team of representatives came to Bucharest, they wanted to build something here. In the end, it didn't happen, we didn't reach a deal.
You said you wanted to compete against the best...
In football! Just in football, not other things, because in other domains I'm not even as big as an ant!
In football, yes. What's your strategy to close the gap between you and the biggest spenders? Local youth investments?
Exactly! You can't do it otherwise. You can fight the rich only if you grow the players yourself and keep a hold of them. I can't buy players for €100 million. The biggest European clubs have a world selection in their teams. I can't do that. I have to select players while they're kids: 12, 13, 14 years old. I have to take care of them, to look after them and in five or six years’ time let them show the world what they're capable of. I have some very talented players in my academy right now, I trust them a lot.
You said you wanted to build an army-like centre for youth development, to have your own farm right next to it so you could control what they're eating and watch every training session on your TV, live. Is this plan still on?
For the moment, I have 200 homeless people living next to the training facilities. They are there with their families. They have nowhere to go. I am trying to get some good energy there, maybe those people's prayers will help us. I am also building a church. We want God's blessing. When you have God's blessing, nobody can beat you. Not Barcelona, nobody! But the church isn't enough for that, you need to do good things. The 200 homeless people there don't have jobs, they have lots of problems. I am not asking them to work in the training camp; most of them don't have good character. So what? We can't kick them out for that. They have kids: two, three, four kids. I let them stay there, I give them food.
Of your current team, which player do you think will have a great future?
There's not just one. I have three or four players I'm counting count on. But if you ask me who can be sold for good money in six months or a year, I'd tell you about Dennis Man. I had an offer for him. They offered me €13m, which would have beaten the Romanian league transfer record. I asked for €30m. I can't tell you which club it was. I know Manchester United's scouts have been watching him, making notes. When [José] Mourinho was in charge, he looked at the player. I don't know what the situation is now, but the offer wasn't from United.
Is it still your intention to buy a Championship club?
At the moment, no! When I said I wanted to do it, I was very upset with the Romanian justice system. I had just lost some legal battles with the Army; I was very disappointed. My plan was to get the best players out of my team and take them to England. I wanted to get promoted to the Premier League as soon as possible. The TV rights, the marketing, the fans – they all bring a lot of money into a club. I would have given the Romanian players a €4000-5000 salary per week. I would have spent around €20m per season and I would have taken back €80 or 100m – that's what I thought [laughs]. But I did the maths again and I realised it would have been too expensive. First, I needed to buy a club. Then, nobody would have guaranteed me promotion. It's very hard to get promoted to the Premier League. Also, I don't want to be 10th or 12th or 15th in the league. In England, I could have never been number one. In Romania, I am! It's better that I stay here, where I'm number one, than to go there to be one of the many. Right now, I’m starting to win my legal battles with the Army; everything will be sorted out in a few years!
How would you explain to someone who's not familiar with Romanian football what happened between you and the Army? What caused this split and why is your club's name is currently FCSB?
It was a personal thing against me. Some people were envious with what I’d done with this club; they hated me so much that they caused this schism. Some had influence over the judges. It was something very complicated, it went up, the Romanian Secret Service also played a role. But now, the Romanian justice system is getting cleaner. I’ve started to win my battles concerning Steaua. I'm not interested in negotiating peace with anyone. Some people hate me so much that they can't see the truth. They don't realise they are going to lose. They started losing and they don't even realise it because of their hate towards me. Can you believe that? They are fighting until the end to take me out! I changed the name to FCSB at some point to show our good faith until this legal battle is over.
Where do you see your club in 10 years? Will it be called Steaua again?
I think so, yes, because things are clear, from my point of view. Let's not say I see the team among the biggest 10 clubs, it's difficult. But I see it in the top 20. If I didn't aim high, I would not be in football today. And if I didn't think it was possible. What more can I do in Romania? I don't have anybody to fight against. My rivals have all gone or are bankrupt [smiles]. When two clubs clash, it's not just between the teams, on the pitch, it's a fight between the owners as well. All the owners are now too small to confront me. Even the politicians are small for me. Even the president of the Senate, or the president of the country! What do I have to prove to anyone? Nothing! I now want to prove my team's worth in Europe. If you win in Europe, that's the greatest reward!
What will happen to the team if you decide to retire?
It will belong to my descendants. Steaua is a symbol of Romania: this team won the Champions League in 1986! I want it well taken care of. I would leave it in my will, it must go from generation to generation. My nephews or their nephews will see how many fights their grandfather or great-grandfather fought and will take good care of this club.
Did you ever think of selling?
Never. I had some good fun with those who wanted to buy. I wanted to see how far they would go. All of them realised it was only a game of mine. I used to go live on TV and say I'd sell it for €30m, then some would call. "I was just joking" – that was my answer.
How much do you think the club is worth right now?
€200m, including the players. This team has a great European pedigree. We have a good coefficient because we always perform well in Europe. We are among the seeded teams in the draws almost every season. This coefficient means you are worth something. In the end, it means money. Being among the seeded teams gives you status. You get to the group stages more easily. That translates to €35-40m per year just for entering!
Something else you’re famous for is interfering with coaches. How much is true? Do you decide the team, do you make the substitutions during games?
I see things like this: the boss is the one who suffers the most. Let's say someone herds sheep. If the sheep are not well, the boss is affected, not the shepherd. He is paid to do his job, but he doesn't suffer as much as the owner. When my money is involved, I don't let anyone decide for me. I decide everything. If I see a coach is good, I don't interfere. But I have to feel him first. If he brings me milk, cheese, and wool – it's great. That's what matters to me! [smiles] It's a question of inches, I have to know everything that's moving at my club, everything that's happening. I have to study, I have to be informed.
Do you still keep sheep?
Yes, I have around 100!
Can you remember any anecdote involving the players, something that you haven't told the press before?
I don't drink much, but when I do I have a special wine I like. It's from a vineyard I own, a good, very good red wine. One day I decided to take a big bottle to the team, to help them relax before a game. In the same place where I keep the wine I also have some bottles of therapeutic mud I use. Instead of the wine, I picked up the mud. You imagine the fun when we opened the bottle! [laughs]
What was your biggest disappointment in football?
In 2015, we missed out on the Champions League group stage in a play-off against Ludogorets. I was in jail. The return leg went to a penalty shoot-out. Ludogorets had their keeper sent off, so a defender of theirs went in goal for the shootout. Imagine that! Above everything, he was Romanian! And still, they managed to put us out of the Champions League. I was very disappointed. But it was God's will. I had won a lot of money that year. Outside of football, I earned around €110m from a deal I had made. While I was in jail, I think I made €160m from business deals and football. I sold some good players as well.
Has the time you spent in jail changed you in any way?
Yes, definitely. I read a lot. I realised we are worth nothing. You are a millionaire and you are worth nothing. You are a millionaire and you are depending on a police officer who earns maybe €200 or 300 per month. Can you imagine that? He locks you in a room and you don't have a key. That room can be opened only on the outside. You go in, you get locked in and you don't have a key to open the door. You are just like an animal. Do you understand the feeling?
Could you watch all the games the team played?
Yes, I watched them with everyone, in a common room.
What was the hardest thing for you while you were there?
The fact that I was away from my family [sighs]. I didn't want my daughters or my wife to see me while I was in jail, I didn't want to humiliate them. I asked them not to come to visit me while I was in prison. I only used to allow men to visit. See how much I respect women? Even though I missed them like crazy, I didn't want to make them suffer even more by seeing me there. I value my family a lot.
When you qualified for the Champions League, presidents of big clubs came to visit you in your palace in downtown Bucharest and you seemed to enjoy their attention a lot. Do you miss those times?
I accept life as it is. I don't miss anything. I only regret my sins, I don't have any other regrets. In football, I can't feel sorry for anything. I'm not interested in things like these anymore. When I'm not with my family, I spend my time with priests, with monks. If you sit in a Dior perfume shop, you smell like Dior, if you sit with the monks, you get their vibe, if you sit with someone who likes women a lot, you get his vibe, if you sit with a thief, you get his and so on. From good people, you get a good vibe. And that's what I want. I don't want to hang out with the famous, the rich, the powerful – I just want to sit by those who are good, doing the right things in life. Maybe, just maybe, I regret that penalty shoot-out against Ludogorets. It took €30m out of my pocket! See, we're back thinking about the money! [laughs]
How do you recruit players? Did you ever turn down a big name who was offered to you?
No, and that's because I only work with players I know. I know what I have to do. I try to avoid working with the unpredictable. When I took over, I trusted my general manager a lot and allowed him to make some transfers. Now, I’ve become more experienced as well. I started knowing who to sign! Football is too complex to know it all, but now I'm doing what I want, what I feel. If I don't know a player, I don't sign him. If someone in the club tells me about a player and he's cheap, that's not a problem. But if he costs money – I have to see him.
No, a video is ok! [laughs] I just have to watch a game, sometimes a few minutes, not more. I don't need more time. I want to see the quality he has. That's where my talent is. I see what others don't. I've got flair! I have a good intuition. I see a player moving and I know what to do next. Just like it was with the kid I was telling you about before, Man. I saw him on TV in a second-division game. I called my general manager and told him to get the transfer done as soon as possible. We bought him and now he's worth tens of millions! He's the first of many to be worth that much. Remember some names: [Florinel] Coman and [Olimpiu] Moruțan. Also, there is a 16-year-old, Ianis Stoica, he's going to go higher than anyone, that's what I think!
Do you think foreign investment in the Romanian league would be good for your club?
Definitely! Oh, and I think Uefa should get rid of the Financial Fair Play rule. When there is money for the rich, there is money for the poor as well! The market needs to be as free as possible. I encourage a strong competition between the sheikhs and Barcelona, Real Madrid! For us, that would be great. Foreign investment in Romania would be good too. The league would become stronger. We would be better in Europe too. If you face strong opposition in your home league, you become better, more competitive!
Do you believe in the Superleague idea?
No! I can't see it happening. Fans care too much about their domestic leagues; players would be exhausted to play in such a competition too. They would always be on the run. I don't know who would be part of this Superleague. Fans have their pride, they want their word to be heard too.
Where do you get your news from? Do you have a Facebook or Twitter account? Do you read the press?
No, nothing, I'm not interested in social media or the internet. I don't have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, nothing. I only watch sports channels on TV. That's where I get my news from.
How much is Messi worth?
If he was 20 or 21, definitely €1billion! In five years time, even Neymar could be sold for €1bn. Ah, but he wouldn't be as young as he is today. Ronaldo as well, he would be worth that if he was 20 or 21! Mbappé, maybe he will actually be sold for one billion, who knows? That's what I was telling you: the prices are going mad. I want to beat the super-rich! I am not interested in winning against the owners, Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour or the others, I want to prove that, when God wants, the small one can beat the big one! David beats Goliath!
If you could pick an actor to play your role in a movie, who would he be?
[smiles] Ah, I lost interest in movies too! When you watch a movie, it sticks to your brain. I pray a lot. If I prayed and then watched movies, I would be praying in vain. That's because I would think about the movie and it would distract my attention. Also, many of the movies have sex scenes – it's not a moral thing for me! I'm 60 years old! I want to erase everything that God doesn't like from my brain. I blocked all the sex channels from my TV, I don't want to see anything that could harm my inner prayer.
People always seem to want something from you. The media is following you non-stop, there are cameras waiting for you at the stadium before and after the games, TV shows calling you to ask about the team. Don't you ever get bored?
Look, I love people. I understand the others. I understand that's their job. I help them because they have to earn a salary and take it back to their families. What do I say? Things related to football, things that people love to hear from me. And when it's possible, I say something about God as well. Maybe someone hears or reads what I said. And if one from a million tries to follow God after that, it means the world to me. I gave something good to a man or a woman, and that's an immense satisfaction for me.