The Good Sanmartean: Romanian wizard to make waves in Saudi

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Lucian Sanmartean may be in the twilight of his career, but his ability should see him become a leading light for Al Ittihad.

In October 2011, Lucian Sanmartean got an unexpected call from Romania coach Victor Piturca ahead of an important Euro 2012 qualifier versus Belarus. The midfielder was injured, but his desire to finally represent the national team after countless delays was too strong. He decided to conceal the condition of his foot and play through the pain. The gamble backfired, and Sanmartean was forced to ask to be substituted after just 28 minutes, while Romania ended up with a disappointing 2-2 draw. Naturally, Piturca was furious and never called Lucian again.

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That is the story of Sanmartean’s life. He is 34 already, but you might never have heard of his outrageous potential. Back in his youth, when he grew at Gloria Bistrita, who are amusingly known as the Blue Vampires, Lucian was compared to Michel Platini, and many admirers were certain that he was about to become Gheorghe Hagi’s heir. After facing Bistrita in the Intertoto Cup, Brescia coach Gianni De Biasi remarked: “I have never seen such a talent”. Numerous Italian clubs made attempts to sign him, but he eventually went to Panathinaikos in the summer of 2003, at a bargain price of less than Dh 4.25 million (1m euros).

Panathinaikos fans were initially angry at their management. Bizarre press reports linked their club to Dennis Bergkamp, and a little known Romanian was far from their dream acquisition – to put it mildly. However, the attitude changed completely in a matter of weeks. Sanmartean caught the imagination with his unique style – casual, almost effortless, full of imperious class. His immaculate vision, range of passing and dribbling abilities were so spectacular that fans started singing about their new idol. “Who needs Bergkamp when we have Sanmartean?” they chanted.

It was a phenomenal first season for the Romanian in Athens, as Panathinaikos won the title for the first time in eight years, and completed the double after lifting the Greek Cup. But just when the club began receiving lucrative offers for his services and refused even to listen to them, disaster struck. Sanmartean was accused of doping after tests showed high testosterone levels. Panathinaikos decided to ban him, and he didn’t even have an opportunity to train with the team for three months.

Lucian Sanmartean was billed, like many young Romanians, as the next Gheorghe Hagi.

To make matters worse, he had significant problems with coach Alberto Malesani, who arrived in February 2005. The Italian initially admired Sanmartean’s abilities, but was disappointed with his attitude, and the conflict soon spiraled out of control. The player himself regretted his behaviour later on, but was too stubborn to change his ways at the time. As a result, more than two years were wasted before Sanmartean finally bought out his contract, disappointed that the club never really apologised to him for erroneous doping accusations.

By the time Sanmartean signed for Utrecht in 2007, he knew that time was running out for him to have a successful career. He started playing brilliantly in the Eredivisie, and the fans instantly fell in love. They nicknamed him ‘Platini of the Balkans’, and soon Ajax and PSV – the biggest clubs in the Netherlands – were reported to have a very keen interest in the Romanian. Tragically, fate decided differently again. Injuries completely ruined his Eredivisie career, and Sanmartean was even mistakenly operated on for a hernia. By the end of 2008, he was finished. Utrecht released him, and he was left without a club.

That’s when depression came in. Sanmartean seriously thought of quitting football for good, but his wife, an athlete herself, persuaded him to continue and forced him to run with her in the park to keep some kind of fitness. Eventually, he returned to Bistrita in 2009, aged 29, and gradually managed to put his career back on track. In fact, he was at his best again, fooling opponents and thrilling football lovers around Romania.

“In terms of individual quality, Sanmartean is the best Romanian player since Hagi. Comparisons with Zidane aren’t a joke”

Steaua Bucharest owner Gigi Becali had always been an admirer, but didn’t want to pay too much for his services, and so Sanmartean moved from Bistrita to modest Vaslui in January 2010. His form was superb, he was finally free of significant injuries, and only his seemingly arrogant character left something to be desired. That might have been the reason behind Piturca’s constant refusal to call him into Romania squad, in spite of various campaigns for him to be included.

Then came the aforementioned Belarus incident that cooked his goose. People dearly wanted to see him help the national team, especially when he was in his prime ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifying playoffs against Greece, but Piturca remained stubborn in his refusal, and Romania lost meekly.

Nevertheless, one of Sanmartean’s very sacred dreams was finally fulfilled when Steaua signed him a year ago. His father is a Dinamo Bucharest fan, but Lucian himself grew up a Steaua impressive that he was voted player of the year in 2014, at the age of 34. And with Piturca gone, Sanmartean finally started playing regularly for the national team under veteran coach Anghel Iordanescu. His magical dribbles became very popular on YouTube, and this was probably the best year of his life.

Had he been younger, Steaua would have made a fortune on selling him to a top club. But Sanmartean didn’t have too many years left to grace the field, and his desire to finally make some good money for the future saw him move to Saudi Arabia. It was Piturca, of all people, who signed him for Al Ittihad. While the coach is wary of Lucian’s unpredictability at the highest level, he understands that such qualities are exactly what Saudi fans want to see. They have witnessed quite a lot of stars in their league in recent years, but few as naturally talented as Sanmartean.

Leading Romanian journalist Emmanuel Rosu claims: “In terms of individual quality, Sanmartean is the best player Romania had since Hagi. He needed just one month to become Steaua’s most loved player and leaves an emotional fanbase behind him. Comparisons with Zinedine Zidane are not a bad joke. Lucian is a player who makes football look easy and enjoyable. He loves football and makes people feel the same”.

Luck wasn’t on Sanmartean’s side during his career, but Al Ittihad fans will be lucky to have him. They can definitely start anticipating a rare treat.

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Vokhid Shodiev scored a dramatic late goal to send 2011 semifinalists Uzbekistan through to the Asian Cup quarterfinals.

Uzbekistan booked a place in the Asian Cup quarter-finals after beating Saudi Arabia 3-1 in a nail-biter on Sunday, a bullet header from Vokhid Shodiev helping them over the line.

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Vokhid Shodiev scored a dramatic winner for the 2011 semi-finalists and averted a controversial denouement after Saudi Arabia had been awarded a soft penalty which cancelled out an early strike from two-goal hero Sardor Rashidov.

Uzbekistan, who reached the semi-finals of the last Asian Cup in 2011, will face South Korea in the last eight on Thursday, while three-times champions Saudi Arabia crash out at the group stage — just as they did four years ago. 

Saudi Arabia had briefly looked to be heading for the draw they needed to join Group B winners China in the knockout stage after Australian referee Ben Williams gifted them a penalty which Mohammed Al Sahlawi converted on the hour-mark. 

Moments later Williams ruled out an Uzbekistan goal for another phantom foul, sparking fury among the players in white.

Rashidov opened the scoring inside two minutes, capitalising on bumbling Saudi defending to score with a daisy-cutter which squeezed through the legs of goalkeeper Waleed Abullah.

But it was Shodiev who swung a see-saw match back in Uzbekistan's favour, climbing to head home a Shavkatjon Mulladjanov cross before racing off to the corner flag to celebrate wildly.

Sun Ke scored twice to steal the show again as China defeated North Korea 2-1 in Canberra on Sunday to register their best ever start to an Asian Cup.

The in-form Sun opened the scoring after just 45 seconds when he pounced on a hopeful long pass to poke the ball home.

He grabbed his third of the tournament shortly before the break, heading home a cross by full-back Jiang Zhipeng that delighted the majority Chinese crowd at Canberra Stadium.

China, who were already assured of top spot in Group B and a Brisbane quarter-final against Australia, have now won their first three Asian Cup games for the first time.

North Korea made it 2-1 in the 56th minute when Jong Il-Gwan's weak shot was cleared off the line by Zhang Linpeng, only for it to bounce back in off striker Gao Lin.

A dogged North Korea pushed for a leveller and had a large crowd of 18,457 on their feet when substitute So Hyon-Uk crashed a powerful volley against the crossbar with 10 minutes remaining. 

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