Adrian Mutu, The Rise and Fall of Romania’s Last Superstar

Romania has a long history of extremely talented and stubborn or temperamental football playmakers, starting with Nicolae Dobrin in the ’70s, continuing with Ilie Balaci in the ’80s and Gheorghe Hagi in the ’90s. If you ask any Romanian fan who the G.O.A.T. is, he will probably mention one of those three. But there is one more name they would add, one that can’t be said without a touch of regret or frustration: Adrian Mutu.

With an amount of talent and personality that may even surpass the former mentioned, Mutu’s playing career was sprinkled with controversies, moments of genius, and a great amount of disappointment. “What if?” is the question that probably first comes to mind when thinking about him. Even Mutu himself admitted he has asked himself many times.

Early years in Romania

Adrian Mutu made his debut in Romania’s first league for his boyhood club FC Arges Pitesti in 1996, aged only 17. He played two seasons for the Vulturii alb-violeți (“White-Violet Eagles”) managing to score 11 goals in 41 appearances. As a supporter of Steaua Bucuresti as a young boy, the news that the Bucharest giants wanted to sign him came as a huge achievement. His agent Ioan (Giovanni) Becali personally took the young man to the capital city and booked him a hotel room.

As he left him there, Mutu knew that he was going to wake up in the morning to go signing a contract with the reigning champions. Just a few hours later, however, the agent called him to inform him that coach Mircea Lucescu wanted to sign him and that is new destination was Rapid Bucuresti. The next day, Mutu rose to the news that he was a Dinamo Bucuresti’s new player.

In a matter of hours, all the three big names of Romanian football had set their eyes upon him. Ending up at Steaua’s arch-rivals, Mutu had to make up for all the statements made before about his dream of playing for Steaua. He did so by scoring 22 goals in just half a season for the Câinii roșii (“Red Dogs”).

Italy’s calling

After he took the Romanian first league by storm, offers started lining up. In an era when football was seen as a business in Romania and players as mere products, when Inter came knocking Mutu was promptly sold. The Nerazzurri won the race against Parma to sign the Romanian prodigy. With a side bolstering the likes of Ronaldo Nazario da Lima, Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano, Christian Vieri and Alvaro Recoba in the attack, Mutu was meant to be Inter’s 6th choice striker. That didn’t prevent him from making a dream debut as he scored in a Coppa Italia’s Derby Della Madonnina against cross-town rivals Milan.

Mutu wanted more than that, however, and after talking to manager Marcelo Lippi he decided to leave Inter to get more playing time. A move to Hellas Verona was his next stop, and after a short period of accommodation, he started banging in the goals for the Gialloblu.

The 2002/2003 season saw him joining another yellow-and-blue side, Parma, three seasons after their initial bid to bring him at the Ennio Tardini Stadium. That’s when his career really took off. Alongside Adriano, another extremely talented but rebellious character, Adrian Mutu showed the Serie A what he was capable of. It was Mutu’s first season under the coaching of his favorite manager, Cesare Prandelli, who would eventually say about the Romanian: “In my opinion, in the season spent at Parma Mutu was truly devastating, especially in one-on-one situations.”

It took Mutu four fixtures to break the deadlock and get his first goal for Parma, but from that point on, he never looked back and finished with a tally of 18 goals – only second to a certain Bobo Vieri in the goal-scorers standing and surpassing names like Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti, Antonio Di Natale Giuseppe Signori and so on. This is even more impressive considering that those were the glory days of Italian defending and scoring against defenses with players like Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini or Fabio Cannavaro was no piece of cake.

Chelsea, and the first scandal

After the impressive season spent with the Emilian side, Adrian Mutu caught the eye of Europe’s biggest clubs. Even Real Madrid were reportedly asking about the young Romanian striker. But over in London, a new super-power was being born: Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich took over the ownership of the London side with promises of investing insane amounts of money to take them to the top of domestic and European football.

In the first transfer window under his reign, Abramovich proceeded to spend more than 130 million euros, a pretty astonishing amount in terms of 15-years-ago figures. One of the top signings of the summer was Adrian Mutu, whom Chelsea paid 22.5 million. As of today, this remains the highest fee ever paid for a Romanian football player. Commenting on his move, Adrian would say that Chelsea were the highest bidders and the team that seemed to want him the most.

Mutu hit the ground running with a goal on his debut match and a total of four goals in his first three games for the Blues. Claudio Ranieri, his first manager at Chelsea, once said that “When Mr. Abramovich asked me to draw up a list of the players I wanted, I put Mutu right at the top. The first name. I once said Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is like a shark and Carlton Cole like a lion. Well, Adrian Mutu is another born predator. In fact, Mutu is like a snake.”

Mutu seemed to have it all, success, glory, money. However, for a young man coming from an Eastern European country, these things could be a bit overwhelming, and Adrian acted as the perfect example of that. Claudio Ranieri departed the club in 2004, replaced by Jose Mourinho – a manager known for his love of discipline and powerful personality. The Special One didn’t like Mutu’s superstar statute and the relationship between the two was never one of the best. Later in September, Mutu was found positive for cocaine, earning him a seven-month ban from football and thus ending his Chelsea career.

There were multiple rumors surrounding the test, some even claiming that Mourinho had planned everything so that he could get rid of Mutu, who had a special place at the club as he was Abramovich’s son’s favorite player.

Back to “the Boot”

When the ban was over, Adrian Mutu still had a good image in Italy and a bunch of clubs wanted to try their luck with the maverick striker. Out of all of them, Mutu chose Juventus and joined the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a star-studded attack line. He managed to play a considerable number of games despite his competition (33) and scored 7 goals for La Vecchia Signora in his season at the former Stadio Delle Alpi (which closed its gates the same year).

But just like the year before, Mutu seemed to always be linked with some shady affairs as Juventus got relegated to Serie B for the Calciopoli scandal and stripped of the Italian title they had just conquered on the pitch. Some players opted to stay and fight for Juventus even in the second division, while some others were sold to save up money. Mutu was one of them.

The birth of “Il Fenomeno”

Now 27 years old, the Romanian prodigy was reaching true footballing maturity and was now being reunited with Cesare Prandelli at Fiorentina, where he quickly became a fans favorite. He spent five years in Florence, arguably his best stint ever, even being named captain of the squad and scoring over 50 goals.

The Viola fans nicknamed him Il Fenomeno, an epithet only given before to Roberto Baggio – who had been a club legend before breaking his supporters’ hearts as he joined arch-rivals Juventus. Mutu came the other way around and captured the Fiorentini’s imagination with sensational performances and a handful of splendid goals.

Still, his love affair with Fiorentina wasn’t without hiccups as, in the later stage of his career with the Tuscan side, Mutu’s demons came back to strike. In 2010 he tested positive again, this time for sibutramine, an appetite suppressant, banned for the use of sportsmen. This led to another ban – nine months this time – and a huge fine by the club. Differently than Chelsea, however, Fiorentina didn’t give up on him and waited for the ban to end.

Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic was willing to line him up as soon as he would become available again, but just one week before the end of the ban, Mutu was involved in another scandal as he allegedly beat up a waiter in a Florence restaurant along with some friends. That was not the first time Mutu had problems with waiters: back in his native Romania, he was accused of beating up a waiter in his hotel room with a steel bar wrapped in a towel. After the second ban, Mutu failed to reach his previous form and ultimately left Fiorentina in 2011.

The last hoorah

After leaving the Viola, Mutu joined Cesena – the most modest side he ever played for in the Italian first league. He arrived as a marquee signing with high hopes, but despite a pretty reasonable season for the Romanian, where he scored eight goals, the Cavallucci Marini (“Sea Horses”) couldn’t avoid relegation, finishing bottom of the league. For Mutu, the season spent at Cesena marked his 100th goal in Italy – the only Romanian player to ever do so.

The downfall

In pure Mutu style, the next destination on his list was one renowned for its aggressive fans and hostile atmosphere –  Ajaccio in the French Ligue 1. After a very good first season with 11 goals, the second one was a true disappointment: Adrien collected only 9 appearances and no goals. He was reaching the end of his career by now and, in an attempt to seal his place in the Romanian football history, he opted to play for a series of modest teams (Petrolul Ploiesti, Pune City, ASA Tirgu Mures), hoping to catch the eye of the national team coach and get some playing time for Romania.

Mutu needed just one more goal to become the best scorer in the history of his National side. He didn’t get any more chance to play for the Tricolorii however and thus remained joint top-scorer alongside Gheorghe Hagi at 35, even though he managed to do so in 77 matches as opposed to Hagi’s 124.

A career with highs and lows, with moments of brilliance and moments of madness, if there is one thing that Mutu’s life hasn’t been so far – that is, boring. In Romania and in Florence, he is a hero. in London, he is maybe one of the biggest transfer flops ever. One cannot help but wonder what heights the man could have reached, had he had the discipline of Cristiano Ronaldo or simply chosen to focus more on football and less on women, drugs, and fist-fights.

Adrian Mutu was just appointed the new coach of the Romanian U-21 selection and is preparing to jumpstart his managerial career. Maybe he has learned something about being a professional. Perhaps, who knows, one day he could even live the dream of taking his beloved Fiorentina to the top of the Serie A table.