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New Europe

Day Sixty-two: Bucharest

Michael Palin - New EuropeWe turn up at the hour appointed at a large French-style mansion, once the Argentine embassy. A Mercedes Maybach limousine, with curtained back windows, is being polished outside a pair of gold-leaved wrought-iron gates.

We're shown into a house where workmen rule. A smell of plaster and the sound of hammers and drills. Fortunately there's a garden at the back with a table and a few chairs where we can sit below a tall fir tree and wait.

Wait we do. For an hour and a half. Then, like the rising of the wind before an impending storm, there is a flourishing of mobiles and a flurry of instructions. Sitting minions stand and exchange nervous glances. And round the side of the house comes the man himself, in the middle of a swarm of attendants. Gigi Becali is a short, trim, compact figure. Someone, I think, who wishes he were just that bit bigger. His jaw juts firmly forward, as if to compensate for a lack of height, and as he greets me with a firm grasp of the hand, the word Napoleonic comes to mind. Speaking through an interpreter, he apologises for being late, whilst implying at the same time that I am lucky to be talking to him at all. He's doing this as an act of hospitality to visitors in his country. Typical Romanian hospitality, he adds, warming to his theme. This is a great country and everything he does he does for his country and for God.

His father hated communists. He once attacked Stalin with a knife. This really makes me sit up, but it turns out that it was in a restaurant and Stalin was in a picture on the wall. Still, he was thrown in jail for it.

In the 1980s he made a lot of money from the family herd of 600 sheep, invested it in dollars and when the revolution came in 1989 was well positioned to take advantage of the chaos.

'In Romania at that time people would sell just about anything. All they had.'
And Gigi was on hand to buy it. His acquisition of Steaua seems less from a love of football than from a love of what the team stands for, and of course, love for himself.

'Like any rich man, I like my image to be shown off.'

Perhaps because they've just been beaten 4-1 by Real Madrid in the Champions League, Gigi seems less keen to talk about specifics.

'Steaua,' he declares, 'is a symbol and a symbol has no price.' I get the impression that for Gigi, owning Steaua is a step towards owning Romania.

He clearly feels the hand of destiny heavy on his shoulder. He wants to start a new Christian-Democrat Party but only, he says, as an obligation to his people.

'Because God gives me all this power, all this money and everything else, so I feel I need to do this for my country and my people.'

God, one feels, is lucky to know someone like Gigi Becali.

At the end of our talk, or rather his talk, Gigi being not really into listening, we pose for photographs, Gigi now relaxed and expansive. He grips my shoulder, says something to my translator and even laughs. I ask her later what he'd said.
'He said did you know that you are having your photo taken with the next President of Romania?'

We all laugh together and shake hands in a cordial, manly way, but it's a disturbing encounter. The likelihood of a fiery religious chauvinist winning the Romanian presidency seems laughable. But as we leave I sense that for Bogdan and others like him it isn't such a joke. At the table in the garden Gigi is holding court. He has his jacket off and a thin, young, frightened-looking man is massaging his shoulders through a blue and white striped shirt. Half a dozen heavies in dark suits sit around guffawing and joshing. Forget Napoleonic, this is a scene out of Goodfellas.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-two: Bucharest
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Bucharest
  • Book page no: 150

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