Radu Baicu on the curious tale of a man who swapped the football pitch for the classroom, but couldn't shake off his love for the game.
“Maths is what remains in the back of your head, after you’ve forgotten everything else. It helped me in my coaching career as well - it created some shelves, where I deposit all my gathered data and keep my knowledge well organised."
When Cristi Pustai decided to hang up his boots and grow a beer belly, he chose a path that no other ex-footballer with money, cars and hot chicks on his mind would have dared to tread. After a rather modest career as a striker at Gaz Metan Medias and Chimica Tarnaveni, he decided to teach maths in high school. His return to the game after three years in the classroom was very similar to the somehow always-unexpected appearance of a teacher in class after recess; he found everyone out of their seats, talking very loudly, with most engaged in the homework that, quite frankly, they should have done yesterday evening.
It was a class of boys who once were very good in practice, but who had become clueless when it came to explaining the theory. In Liga 1, where games are a physical battle, too often decided by a terrible mistake, not by some special individual or collective move, such characteristics can prove fatal. However, Pustai's intelligence and ability to think outside the box in terms of how to get the ball inside the penalty box and in the net has shone through since he secured promotion. Gaz Metan Medias are pushing for a place in Europe, in spite of some fierce competition from more traditional Romanian powerhouses, as well as the odd suspicious refereeing decision.
A glance at the standings shows little Otelul Galati ahead of everyone else, and you might well think that given Dorinel Munteanu's tactical knowledge and motivational abilities, I have chosen the wrong guy to praise. However, Pustai also deserves great credit for his ability to take the players he has available to him and impart the style of football that he wants to see- a style which makes for an open, attractive spectacle. You might raise a single eyebrow (even if your name is not Carlo) when you see the tallest player from Liga 1 (Zarko Markovic, 2.04 m) making runs from left back and competing against diminutive, skilful wingers like Dinamo's Torje (1.67 m), but you should make an effort and raise them both; as Gaz Metan have won more than once without fielding a natural forward in the first eleven this season.
Pustai's tactical shape has been 4-4-2.0: the strikerless 4-4-2. The false "front men" are two dwarfs- Alexandru Munteanu (naturally a right-winger, 1.69 m) and Eric de Oliveira (attacking midfielder, 1.74 m). Both are instructed to stay between the lines at equal distances between the opposition's centre-backs and central midfielders, without becoming distracted by the movements of their opponents- the midfield and defence have dealt with that, whilst pushing forward at every opportunity. The results have been devastating (a 3-1 victory over Universitatea Cluj was particularly impressive) and for now, it looks as if Pustai has settled upon a winning formula. Unless the club finally acknowledges that, at least for this season (his contract expires next June) they have a coach capable of taking Medias into Europe, and buys him a striker. Not because it's necessary, but because it's a nice thing to do.
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