At 75, Mircea Lucescu, Former captain of the Romanian team in the 1970s, then pioneering coach in Italy, Ukraine and Turkey, never ceases to furnish his trophy cabinet. Evidenced by his recent double in the championship-cup on the bench of the prestigious Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev. At the time of the kickoff of the 2021 edition of the Euro, Friday June 11, he deciphers the evolution of European football.
You were a Romanian international between 1966 and 1979, at a time when the Euro had nothing of the event it is today. How do you see this edition?
I was captain of the Romanian team. I remember that we lost a support match to reach Euro 1972 against Hungary. There were only four teams in the final tournament that went straight to the semi-finals. The organization of this Euro in eleven European cities is a matter of policy. It is the demonstration of a single entity. This Euro is not so much a sporting thing, it is more of a political symbol. It should be remembered that the Europe of football is larger than the European Union. The idea came from France [référence à Michel Platini alors président de l’UEFA], as usual, like the creation of the Euro or the European Champion Clubs’ Cup [ancien nom de la Ligue des champions].
You are the embodiment of a certain European football. Since your beginnings as a coach in Romania in 1979, you have coached in Italy, but also in Turkey and Ukraine where you have won continental titles …
I won titles everywhere. I won the European Supercup against Real Madrid with Galatasaray [en 2000]. It was extraordinary, a great celebration for Turkey. With Shakhtar Donetsk against Werder Bremen, it was also amazing to win the UEFA Cup [ancien nom de la Ligue Europa]. For that, we had to play 17 games, half of a championship. It engages you and necessarily gives you intense emotions.
These titles remain exceptions. Do you regret the time when the whole of Europe – including Eastern Europe – could shine in European competitions?
Before, football in Eastern Europe was supported by the state. We weren’t professional but we could prepare professionally and play at the same level as in the West. Going from an amateur organization to a professional organization takes a long time. Governments had other priorities than football when the wall fell [de Berlin, en 1989]. Teams like Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade were European champions. Today that would be too difficult. Money invested in football has grown exponentially in the West. The same clubs from the same countries always arrive in the quarter-finals.
Are there still very marked styles of play in different European countries?
We see that the different styles of play interpenetrate thanks to the movement of players and coaches, from one country to another. We influence each other and we adapt. There is no longer a fundamental difference. We can see for example the same style of play in different countries. Coaches are influenced by great coaches. The specific characteristics of this or that football have gradually disappeared. We have no more secrets now. We know everything about the opponent. The televised broadcasting of the matches has helped to develop a standardization of European football. Before, without television, you could create surprises. Now it is very complicated. You really have to prepare your teams very well.
Moreover, as regards the preparation of the matches, I brought during my stay in Italy in Brescia [de 1991 à 1996], something that later became common. I created the first company specializing in video analysis, player profiles, match synthesis, opponents’ playing characteristics… It was used at the 1994 World Cup. Now all the clubs have analysis sectors matches.
What did you think of the Super League episode, a project carried by a few rich European clubs?
I was totally against it. Everything is artificial in this system. Although football was invented by English aristocrats, it quickly spread to the working class. It is a popular sport and it should not be forgotten. The Super League is as if we wanted to transform it into an opera performance, reserved for an audience of rich people. Football without the salt of competition is nothing. Twenty teams that play with each other only for money or entertainment is no longer football. Football is not just about what happens on the playing field. Football exists and lives much more outside, in society.
Is national team football in danger?
Even if it is true that national competitions – like the English Premier League – and European competitions are getting stronger and stronger, I do not believe that the football of the selections can disappear. On the other hand, it is true that in terms of pure sporting quality, the best clubs would win against the best selections. They know each other perfectly, they know what to do when they need to do it.
The selections no longer have time to prepare. Before, it was possible to interrupt the championships. Now the national teams meet only one or two weeks before the start of the competitions. During the season, they have only two to three (??? days, weeks, months ???, corr.) here and there to try to define a style of play.
Considering all these parameters, what is the robot portrait of the selections that will shine during this Euro?
The manager who wins is the one who manages to have his national team play like a club team. What makes the difference is the quality of the players available, their good mental and physical health after a trying season, and optimizing the short preparation period before the final tournament. Didier Deschamps, for example, mastered this environment perfectly in 2018. He knows exactly what to do before a competition, he knows his players and his group perfectly.
I don’t think you can say that one team dominates European football at the moment. We still notice that the big nations – with the exception of Portugal or France – are almost all protected since they play at home during the group stage. Then, in knockout matches, there can be a surprise like Greece in 2004.