You know how sometimes you have a really bad week, when it all just gets too much? Rapid București are having one of those weeks. Only worse.
On Wednesday night they lost 3-0 against their direct promotion rivals Dunărea Călărași and consequently yielded top spot in Liga II to them, in a match halfway through which their head coach Dan Alexa punched a window and had to go to hospital. On the same day FIFA wrote to the Romanian football federation (FRF), asking it to deduct six points from Rapid for non-payment of wages to a former player. Next Friday a court will decide whether to declare the club bankrupt, after three and a half years in administration; on Thursday of this week the special administrator himself Radu Birlică resigned, revealing that the club is living hand-to-mouth on loans and ticket sales and that the players have not been paid for three months. Non-playing staff have gone five months without salary. Birlică also claims to have been threatened by Rapid’s owner, Valerii Moraru, for his attempts to honour the club’s massive debts. The sporting director, Dinu Gheorghe, said on Friday that Rapid could have new owners next Thursday, depending on the outcome of yet another trial connected with former shareholders of the club.
Throughout their year in the second division, it has been pretty clear that the only thing that can save Rapid București from ruin is immediate promotion back to Liga I. Ticket sales, with fewer than 5,000 spectators paying three pounds each, are not going to keep the floodlights on. And they have been top of the eastern series of Liga II for most of the season. But since April, when the league split into a top and a bottom half, points were halved and other statistics wiped clean, results have not been going well. Three wins and three defeats have left them with a negative goal difference, while Dunărea, a newly-promoted side from a provincial town on the north bank of the Danube, have swept impressively upwards, with only five league defeats in the last two seasons combined. Rapid are the only team to have beaten Dunărea in this campaign, but the boys from the capital were shambolic on Wednesday night and the two teams are now level on points.
With a six-point deduction to come, the Giuleștenii will have to see off the challenge of Dacia Unirea Brăila today (Saturday) in order to be confident of second place, which itself only gives access to a two-stage play-off process for the possibility of promotion. The coach is worried about the motivation of the players for the four remaining regular fixtures: not only are they not being paid, only five of them have contracts which extend beyond the summer.
Points deductions are a regular and confusing feature of Romanian football: thanks to the terrible financial state of almost all clubs and to rules which seem to change every year, points disappear and then reappear after appeals, so nobody can guarantee anything. It is not unheard of for punishments to be repealed after the end of a season and an ad-hoc summer play-off to be thrust upon unsuspecting players and supporters. But Birlică also says that the club did not bother to employ a lawyer to contest FIFA’s decision, so it is unlikely to be overturned. The decision itself relates to a former Arsenal youth player, Rhema Obed, who was on the books at Rapid in 2013-14 and is owed 57,000 euros in unpaid wages. The ruling in his favour has drawn attention to the problem of football “slavery”, and the Romanian players’ union has successfully campaigned for a change to the insolvency law, which now requires a penniless club to release players from their contracts if it cannot pay them. Now, if Rapid’s owners cannot find the money, the team loses almost all hope of promotion and thus salvation.
On the other hand, with a boisterous crowd behind them (including me!) and a bit of creativity from that little number 8 in midfield, maybe this afternoon they can turn the corner. And rise again…
UPDATE: Rapid beat Brăila 1-0 while Dunărea drew 1-1 at Bacău, so Rapid are top again – but when the points deduction is implemented they will be in third, below Brăila on goal difference.