Eastern European countries have always been there or thereabouts when it comes to their representation in major tournaments and producing quality players. Romania’s Gheorghe Popescu is one player that had a distinguished career and can be considered one of the best players to come from that part of the continent. Popescu, who was born in 1967, was said to have a tactical knowledge for a defender that was useful to every club he played for. To this day Popescu still remains Romania’s most capped player with 115 appearances for his country. As well as his numerous turn-outs for Romania, he will be remembered by English football followers for his brief spell at Tottenham. So whatever happened to Gheorghe Popescu?
His professional career started in 1984 with a club called Universitatea Craiova, where he played 103 times and scored 22 goals. In the early part of his career Popescu was capable of mixing his defending skills with the ability to display a great technical side to his game; therefore he could play as a defensive-midfielder but with the advantage of being more of a playmaker from that position. This probably explains the fact that he would probably be supporting his attackers more than his fellow defenders, thus enabling him to scored goals at every club he went to, as seen with his 22 for his first club.
After learning his trade with Craiova, he moved to his first major European club- PSV Eindhoven. He spent four years at the Dutch club, from 1990-1994, and once again at a health goal-scoring ratio for a defender/defensive midfielder. In just over 100 games, he found the net on 24 occasions. He won the Dutch league in each of his first two seasons and played under the legend that was Sir Bobby Robson. However, when Robson left the club, the title didn’t come to Eindhoven again and the new coach struggled to create that winning formula and Popescu soon found himself on his way to Tottenham for the start of the 94-95 season.
The Romanian moved to White Hart Lane for just under £3m, at specifically £2.9m. He was a 26-year-old at the time and joined his international team-mate Ilie Dumitrescu in the Premiership. Popescu played 23 times for Spurs and scored three goals in the process, but found that he couldn’t enjoy the same success as he did on the international stage, on a personal level, and left the club after just one campaign. Even then, the move away from England still resulted in him joining another major force in Barcelona.
In his two years at the Nou Camp he helped the Spanish giants win the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997 and had the privilege of captaining the team during a period of his time there. Winning the cup in 1997 was his last act before he moved to his last major club, Turkish side Galatasaray. In the four years Popescu spent there, 97-01, he made 110 appearances and was apparently labeled as the greatest foreign defender in Turkey. His ability to read the game made him shine, and it came as no coincidence that he would time his tackles perfectly. Arsenal fans will remember him as the player that scored the winning penalty in the shootout of the 2000 UEFA Cup final against their side.
In between 2001-2003 Popescu would go on to play for three more clubs before retiring. These were Italian side Lecce, followed by a return to his home country to play for Dinamo Bucharest and ending his playing days with German side Hannover 96.
Popescu’s longevity at international level shows in his personal accolades, where he was never outside the top four of the Romanian Footballer of the Year awards in each of his 13 years and won the title six times. He had the privilege of playing in three World Cups – 1990, 1994 and 1998 – whilst he was recently voted in to Romanian football’s all-time World Cup team.
Approximately a year ago Popescu appeared in the news for controversial reasons when he was forced to deny a newspaper report that he was an informer of the feared Communist police in Romania. He claimed that he signed a document to “defend the national interests.” There was better news for him to be attached to when he was named as the ambassador for the 2010 FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour in Romania, which took place a few weeks ago.
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