“If we’d scored, perhaps the game would have been different.”
So said veteran coach Anghel Iordănescu after his team’s defeat to Albania on Sunday night, his 100th match in charge and a result which left Romania bottom of Group A. And how right he was. You don’t have to look far for the immediate reasons why they are heading home: in three matches, they managed just two goals, both from the penalty spot. Only Bogdan Stancu got on the scoresheet, and no Romanian made an assist in the tournament. If they’d scored twice in each game, they’d have seven points and (probably) be top of the group…
This was supposed to be the match where it all came right: finally, an inferior team! We can attack! Romania’s defence was lauded in the build-up to the tournament, and rightly so: two goals conceded in ten qualifiers is extremely tight. But they only scored eleven goals, and seven of those were scored by players who did not even make it into the squad for the finals. In their three finals matches put together, Romania mustered a total of eight shots on target: an average of one every half-hour. Even if a forward line made up of employees of Gençlerbirliği, Ludogorets Razgrad, Astra Giurgiu and Cordoba could not be expected to terrify a first-choice French or Swiss defender, surely they could have troubled the Albanians? Yet, after a creditable performance against the hosts, and a game they looked like winning against Switzerland, this match brought only despair and frustration.
After the first twenty minutes, which the men in yellow dominated without threatening to explode, the underdogs began to play like a proper team, attacking at speed down the flanks and generally being aggressive. (Basha at one point stuck his studs in Hoban’s shoulder and was lucky not to be dismissed. Hoban certainly gave the referee plenty of time to consider it, with a multiple agony-roll.) Romania’s build-up play became more laboured as Albania grew in confidence. But this was a team whose joint top scorer in qualifying (with one goal) was ‘o.g.’; surely they wouldn’t actually do a goal?
Tătărușanu, whose performance against the Swiss had partly atoned for the Giroud goal in the opening game, clearly didn’t think that was a possibility. In the 35th minute he wandered casually out to claim a high cross from Mamushaj, completely failing to prevent FC Vaduz’s sharp-shooter Armando Sadiku from heading the ball past him into the recently vacated net. Although they dominated possession and Florin Andone managed to hit the post in the second half, Romania could not find a way past, through, round, over or under the dark-shirted defence.
As the newspaper Adevărul put it, Romania have gone down in Albanian football history. And it’s nice that Sadiku’s name is almost identical to the Romanian word for ‘the sadist’, sadicul. However, much of the press dissection of the nation’s curtailed participation in this tournament hits upon a lack of invention and spark. While the team was always going to be based on its solid back line and two holding midfielders, the likes of Adi Popa and Gabriel Torje (and, God help us, Alexandru Chipciu) were supposed to offer some adventure going forward; they rarely delivered. Perhaps it is difficult for a team so set up to defend, to adapt to attack suddenly on demand. The 36-year-old playmaker Lucian Sânmărtean*, who some observers have been saying should have been in the team from the start, did not play at all in the championship until the second half of this game and was unable to make the difference. It is also widely felt that the coach is no longer the same man who took (a much more talented) Romania to great heights in the 1990s.
Iordănescu was a true Steaua great as a player in the 1970s and 1980s (coming on as a sub in the 1986 European Cup final win), and he is still the club’s all-time record goalscorer. His record as coach includes many of Steaua and Romania’s most memorable triumphs: another European Cup final in 1989 and an impressive World Cup in 1994, followed by qualification for Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup. There were failures too – in his second stint as national manager, Romania did not qualify for Euro 2004 or the 2006 World Cup. During qualifying for the 2016 tournament, Iordănescu, aka ‘The General’, aka ‘Father Chicken’, came in for heavy criticism, not just tactically but personally too: he supposedly gets his players’ names mixed up, Bobby Robson-style. At 66, and after this disappointing showing, he will surely not be on the bench when Romania play their next competitive game, in September against Montenegro.
But we get ahead of ourselves. For now, this is a time for shame, breast-beating, recriminations, and general wallowing in misery. Costin Ștucan’s piece on Prosport puts the football into the wider context of failures in Romanian society. And he has a point: from players dying on the pitch yards away from a hospital, to players going unpaid for months on end, to the neverending betting scandals, to suspect club ownership, to the shoddy administration at the Federation, and on, and on, the misdirection of resources cannot but have a negative effect on the game, and these issues reflect the country outside the football bubble.
My suggestion is that the youth academies ought to focus on unearthing at least two footballing geniuses, and sharpish. Or else send some players to FC Vaduz to get top-class experience from the Sadist.
*Irrelevant footnote: in 2009 Sânmărtean was due to transfer from his hometown team Gloria Bistrița to Rapid Bucharest. Unfortunately, while he was on preseason tour with Rapid, the two chairmen disagreed over his price, so the deal fell through. The Rapid club doctor was instructed to tell the press that the player had hepatitis C, so as not to upset the fans…