International Sporting Dad Weekend

In November I took my dad to two international matches in the space of 24 hours. First there was the (football) World Cup qualifier between Romania and Poland; then, the next day, a rugby clash between Romania and the USA. These were two rather different experiences for the spectator. Here’s what he thought of it all (in my mind. I haven’t spoken to him about it. Or if I have, I’ve forgotten what he said)…

It was a big weekend for Romanian sports involving balls and men. Yes, men. It was time for the men to step up and show the nation that Romanian sport is not just about Simona Halep [world #4 tenniser] and CSM București [defending European women’s handball champions thanks to this penalty shootout]. Men play sport too, y’know.

The only live sporting experiences that me and Dad have shared are:

  • Preston North End vs Peterborough United on Deepdale’s plastic pitch in (I think) 1991, which I remember was boring;
  • Spain vs. Romania at Elland Road in Euro ’96, of which I remember nothing – not even Hagi, who apparently had an off-day – because an hour later we were at my cousin’s in Bramley watching England tear Holland apart; and
  • a mid-nineties stadium tour of Old Trafford.

Our shared experiences of Thames & Chiltern League under-10s football, meanwhile, are best left in their box.

Me: So, Dad, what did you think of the Poland game?

Dad: It was … interesting.

Me: You didn’t enjoy the build-up.

Dad: Being trapped by riot police in a scrum at the bottom of the steps while you were at the top in a scrum trying to find the right turnstile wasn’t all that pleasant. And when we got into the stadium there was a strangely menacing, empty feel to the bare concrete structure. Then in the stand nobody was in their right seats and we couldn’t find your friends. But the atmosphere was hoppin’.

A rare Romanian attack

Me: If we rewind a bit, I remember in the restaurant before the game you were a little bit worried by some big Polish fans noisily getting hammered.

Dad: That did bother me slightly, I’ll admit. I wasn’t sure what we were in for. Being surrounded by lairy Brits trying to get tanked up as much as possible before entering the booze exclusion zone didn’t make me feel any safer.

Me: We were just trying to relax and get into the spirit of things. Now, I think I know how you felt about the flares inside the stadium. Getting searched at the turnstile and having all your coins confiscated, and then getting in to find that select groups of uniformed fans have somehow managed to bring in enormous quantities of dangerous fireworks…

Dad: On the pitch Romania were not impressive. Poland looked surer, more together and more skilful individually. They took their time to finish off the home team really. In the stand across from us, those chaps all dressed identically in black, chanting and exuding menace. I didn’t like them.

Me: Do you have an opinion on the Lewandowksi flare incident?

Dad: Like you said at the top, you are making up my words, having not asked me questions / listened to answers in real life. How can I answer that?

Me: I agree: it looked weird at the time, as if he was play-acting. But when you watch the replay on Youtube it seems like he was genuinely floored by the explosion. I am so used to watching Romanian football that I assumed it was a theatrical exercise.

Dad: He recovered well enough to score two late goals and seal the win for the Poles.

Me: And apparently there wasn’t even any trouble in town after the game. Except for some Polish fans who fought among themselves. But Romania are now very unlikely to qualify, in spite of Armenia’s unexpected comeback win over group leaders Montenegro earlier in the evening. And they can expect punishment for allowing flares to be thrown onto the pitch, so they might have to play their next home match behind closed doors.

Flare-heavy demo by Rapid supporters during the second half. Polish fans were in the left corner; yellow seats were police zone.

Dad: At least that would spare you the trouble of going to watch such a poor team at such a ridiculous hour of the night.

Me: Indeed. Kicking off at 9.45pm on the eastern fringes of a city whose public transport stops at 11pm is the kind of thing that would make one tut resignedly to the sky, if one didn’t have a cracking rugby match lined up for the next day. Bring it on!

The next day, after a bracing stroll around the excellent Village Museum, we go for a fortifying beer and curry at the delightful Barka Saffron, before heading to the rugby stadium. I can feel a match day tradition coming on.

The Arc de Triumf stadium is truly a venue of some wonder. Some wonder how it can be that the dedicated national stadium for a sport in which Romania are actually pretty good has a capacity of less than 3,500. Some like the large Orthodox church that overlooks the southwestern corner behind the scoreboard. Some wonder at the price of entry, which (until this year, when prices have been bumped up) was around 15-20 lei (£2.50-£4) for the cheap seats. Others marvel at the price of beer sold inside the ground: 7 lei (£1.30). Still others, if they’ve just been to a football match, marvel at the very idea of selling beer anywhere near a sporting stadium – and the notable absence of any flares, uniformed ultras, or any aggression of any kind. Off the pitch, that is.

I have spent many happy hours here watching the Bucharest Wolves beat Calvisano and run Stade Francais close, and the national team beat Namibia, Uruguay and Spain but lose to Tonga, Japan, the USA and arch-rivals Georgia. Some of that time I can even remember. (On several occasions the only beer available was Stejar, which is 7% alcohol.)

The first half of tonight’s game, between the 16th and 17th best teams in the world rankings, is dominated by the home side’s mighty pack and unerring* goal kicker, keeping most of the action upfield to our left. This is fine, as I just love being in this place, with its indestructibly convivial atmosphere and ramshackle, intimate homeliness. The fans are almost within touching distance of the players on the pitch, and can engage in “banter” [=moronic drunken insults] with a linesman should they wish. I have been here enough times to recognise the old blokes in the brass band, and to have bought one of every kind of merchandise available.

The teams line up for the anthems. Don’t think that’s the dawn’s early light.

My dad spills his hot wine over his trousers. I tuck into my second pint. And probably third. Romania go into half-time 20-0 up, remarkable considering they normally struggle against the USA. The second half, luckily for the many American supporters but less so for those of us down this end of the pitch, sees the visitors press Romania back in their own territory. So we still don’t see anything. But Uncle Sam cannot overturn such a deficit, and the crowd who invade the pitch in a very civilised manner at the final whistle are very happy with the 23-10 outcome.

Me: How did you find the rugby, Dad?

Dad: You brought me, remember?

Me: Did you enjoy the game?

Dad: There was a game?

Me: We didn’t see much of it down our end, admittedly, but it definitely happened – we could track it on the big screen. Anyway, you are now on the turf of an international sporting arena, and no-one is yelling at you to get off.

Dad: Beautiful stuff. Do you want some perceptive and penetrating analysis of the match?

Me: Uh?

We walk home. I always walk home from the rugby. (Except that time I’d had so much Stejar I thought it would be a good idea to go into town.) I am very satisfied. Although there were about 45,000 fewer people at the rugby than at the football the previous night, I think me and Dad have worried much less and enjoyed ourselves more. In truth I am only a recent convert to live sport, thanks to the convergence in Bucharest of accessibility, startlingly low prices and the pleasurable obscurity of the occasion. I actually pity the friends who stay at home to watch the proper teams on TV. This is the business – and I don’t think that’s just the beer talking.

Two more home rugby internationals on the following weekends reveal that Romania are actually improving, and expanding on their forward-dominated game. They comfortably beat Canada and Uruguay, and now March’s clash with Georgia can’t come soon enough. I look forward to getting my 35 lei (£6.50) ticket.

From another match entirely (vs Uruguay), but illustrates how close you are to the action!

*Florin “Aurel” Vlaicu is Romania’s most capped player, of all time. He is also currently the joint highest points scorer for any Tier 2 nation, of all time. He does the kicking but – being a hefty unit,  rather than a lissom, misunderstood creative type – usually plays 12. He kicks well and often, but ‘unerring’ is generous. However, lest we forget Welford Road 2015.

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