Friday night saw the Romanian national team’s last warm-up match before they kick off the European Championships against France this coming Friday. The prospect of watching a team which finished their qualifying campaign behind Northern Ireland – and which beat the Faroe Islands 1-0 and needed an injury-time equaliser to draw at home with Finland – had never before filled me with much excitement, but, well, it was a Friday night, and the Arena Națională was the only one of the big Bucharest stadiums I hadn’t been to.
The 9pm kickoff allows for a few beers and a pizza at a pleasant and bustling restaurant terrace near Titan Park, beyond the booze exclusion zone, and a ten-minute walk later we are inside the stadium complex. There is a defined walkway from the outer gate to the imposing grey concrete edifice itself, something we’ve found lacking at Ghencea, Ștefan cel Mare and Giulești, the home grounds of Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid (respectively). (Visitors to these venues have to (respectively) cross a car park, brave eight lanes of traffic and two tramlines in the pouring rain*, or struggle along a busy narrow pavement, to get to the stand.) There are far more people milling around excitably than I had expected, too, and because children get in for free there is a genuine family atmosphere.
And then we go inside. After the obligatory rubbish electronic ticket reading system at the turnstile, where they have to rip the barcode off my home-printed ticket in order to let me through, we find clean toilets (another first). We take our seats and admire the vista.
The steepness of the stands and the roof over your heads (another first) make you think you’re indoors – at least on a warm, dry night like this one. We are in the cheap seats, 15 lei (3 euro) each, at the front of the top tier, but it feels pretty close to the action and the enclosed feeling amplifies the noise in a way that the open sides of the other stadiums I’d been to cannot. Plus, there are (the PA tells us later) 27,000 fans inside, so although that only adds up to half full, only the Steaua-Dinamo derbies in this stadium had a bigger attendance in the league this season.
The game kicks off and before we know it a terribly weak Georgian backpass gifts an easy goal to Adi Popa. The crowd is euphoric and, almost straight from the kickoff, Răzvan Raț’s deep cross is totally unnecessarily turned past his own keeper by the Georgian captain Aleksandre Amisulashvili. Two-nil before the clock has hit three minutes, and the spectators are already laughing; Georgia do not look up to much. This is after all a nation below Cuba and Tanzania in the FIFA rankings, who could beat only Gibraltar and Scotland in Euro 2016 qualifying.
Before the twenty minute mark, Romania have hit the woodwork twice, through Bogdan Stancu and a lively-looking Popa, and the visitors test goalkeeper Ciprian Tătărușanu only once, when he palms away a header from a corner. At half-time it seems disappointing that the hosts have not scored for 42 minutes. From our vantage point Dragoș Grigore, a central defender who plays for mid-table Qatari side Al-Sailiya, has had a solid game, but Romania will be attacking our end in the second half so we expect to see more of Popa and his fellow attackers.
Three minutes in, another dodgy Georgian backpass allows Nicușor Stanciu to bag his fourth international goal – on his fifth cap – and Romania are three up. The tricolour flags and yellow inflatable plastic things are waved around with glee, but I think everyone realises that this is not much a a contest. And yet halfway through the half the Georgians, who look less awful attacking than defending, contrive a goal of their own: substitute Zurab Tsiskaridze sends in a cross from the left and Cosmin Moți, under pressure from another sub Levan Mcedlidze, heads into his own net from three yards. Moți is playing tonight in place of Napoli defender Vlad Chiricheș, who failed to impress on Sunday in the 4-3 defeat against Ukraine.
A few minutes later, back down our end, Romanian subsitutes combine, as Gabriel Torje creates a chance for Alexandru Chipciu, who blasts over the bar from twelve yards. No matter, because not long afterwards Claudiu Keșeru springs the Georgian offside trap with a long straight pass for Chipciu to run onto. Chipciu draws the keeper and squares the ball to Torje, who passes the ball into an empty net.
With four minutes left on the clock, Keșeru fancies a goal of his own, and has a crack from thirty yards. The shot takes a huge deflection off Amisulashvili, who has had a truly miserable evening, and leaves goalkeeper Roin Kvashvadze with no chance. (God, I love Georgian names.) There is still time for Chipciu and Keșeru to miss chances, before the game finishes 5-1 to the home side. The group of about a hundred ultras, clad in black t-shirts in the lower stand directly beneath us, have sung and chanted their very limited repertoire throughout the night, and – after initial reluctance – the players reward them with a quick salute of thanks. Then it’s back out to the real world, in a party-loving European capital where public transport stops running at 11pm, so we spend ages trying to get a taxi into town for a post-match discussion on the merits of this Romanian side.
It’s not easy to judge based on such poor opposition, and while they were pretty solid at the back, tidy in midfield and fairly dynamic upfront, this was surely one of the least impressive 5-1 demolitions any of us have seen. France coach Didier Deschamps will not lose any sleep ahead of next Friday, but if Stanciu can keep scoring and Tătărușanu catch balls instead of flapping at them, who knows? In Popa, Torje and the aging midfield maestro Lucian Sânmărtean, there is energy and creativity going forward, but the fact is that, unlike the golden generation of the 1990s, hardly any of these players are playing at a high level. Anghel Iordănescu, now in his third spell as national coach, was in charge at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups and Euro 96, when the team featured Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lăcătuș, Gica Popescu, Miodrag Belodedici, Dan Petrescu… Besides Tătărușanu and Chiricheș in Serie A, Raț at Rayo Vallecano and Costel Pantelimon at Watford, the key men are all at clubs in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Gulf, or the Spanish second division. The public will expect a win over Albania and a defeat to France, but may underestimate a talented Swiss team. Squeaking through in third place and going out in the second round would not be a disaster.
Finally, another quick mention for Răzvan Raț, who made his 111th international appearance in this match. His first, like his next, was against France in Paris. A line-up featuring Cristian Chivu, Adrian Ilie, Adrian Mutu, Viorel Moldovan and Popescu** faced off against Zidane, Thuram, Desailly, Henry, Vieira and Pires. France won 2-1. In fact, Romania have not beaten France since 1972, and they have never beaten them in a competitive match, in eight attempts. But who scored the opening goal in that 1972 friendly in Bucharest? Anghel Iordănescu, that’s who. Hai România!
*possibly not always the case
**plus the magnificent Rapid legend Daniel Pancu