Fotbal Club FCSB v Sporting Clube de Portugal
Champions League play-off round, second leg.
Wednesday 23rd August 2017. 9.45pm.
Arena Nationala, Bucharest.
Ticket price: 40 lei (£8).
Weather: shorts and t-shirt.
As soon as I climb, wheezing slightly, to my seat, within spitting distance of the top of the upper tier, it is clear that this is to be a match whose intricate details will pass me by. For this spectator there will be no arbitration of niggling fouls, no psychological analysis of a coach in a technical area: even identifying identifiable players is likely to be troublesome. Coupled with my difficulties in tactical understanding, this could make for a frustrating evening: what exactly am I going to get out of this?
Strangely, at no stage before arriving at the stadium has it occurred to me that this will be my first ever Champions League game. Even the giant two-dimensional football obscuring the centre circle stirs nothing in me: most of my memories of watching this level of football on television belong in a time when East 17, Peter Schmeichel and alcopops were at their lofty peak. Then that boisterous, Baroque choral shriek kicks in:
Les grandes équipes
(yes, I looked the lyrics up online) and the first things I think of are Continental tyres and Amstel. I consider myself super-sensitive to anything that smacks of a marketing strategy and naturally impervious to advertising, but clearly these sponsors whose messages, soundtracked by the faux-Handelesque* anthem, would bookend every commercial break more than two decades ago, made a lasting impression on my teenage self. I am doomed forever to associate an act as exquisite as Savicevic’s lob over Zubizarreta in the 1994 final with a nasty, sugary lager. Worse, I cannot picture the Gordon Durie-era Rangers without feeling the urge to fit some new tyres to my dad’s Vauxhall Cavalier. What I am trying to say in my laboured way is that what will remain of this match (I know even before it has started) is its Champions Leagueiness. Even if it doesn’t give us, I dunno, six goals and some low-level crowd disturbance.
The tie is nicely poised: Sporting had the better of the first leg, apparently, but could not score, and Becali’s boys left Lisbon with a 0-0 draw. It’s a sell-out in Bucharest, and 49,000 people expectantly pack the national stadium for what must be the biggest crowd at any football match I’ve ever been to.
Sporting impose themselves on the hosts from the start, repeatedly getting the ball into what we experts like to call the final third. FCSB don’t manage to turn any of their occasional counter-attacks into anything remotely threatening. By this stage we have already had an outbreak of nastiness between the away supporters to our left and a bunch of likely lads over the other side of the stewards. Friendly chants of “Benfica, Benfica” are met with “Dinamo, Dinamo” (incredibly, people have actually written books on the wit of football fans), and the volunteer stewards understandably fail to intervene when first flares are thrown – with impressive accuracy – and then the opposing fans get close enough for fisticuffs. Riot police quickly swarm through the area to defuse the situation. A strange, mass shuffling movement occurs as the police herd the 150 or so green-clad diehards up towards the back and over to our side – away from the hoolies but within easy flare range of little old us.
Meanwhile, far below, a game of football is going on. In the twelfth minute Acuna, unmarked, gets on the end of a flicked-on corner from the right, but his team-mate Doumbia beats him to the loose ball and gives the Portuguese the lead. The green folk rejoice. Three minutes later, however, compact left-back Junior Morais scampers upfield with the ball and supplies Alibec on the left. The striker controls well with his left foot, surprising everyone by beating his man Mathieu in the process, accelerates into the area and shoots (left-footed. Alibec’s right foot is so redundant he long ago auctioned it off to the Gulf). Goalkeeper Rui Patricio only parries the shot into the path of Junior, who has kept running, and the Brazilian buries the ball in the net from a few yards out. It’s one-one and the stadium comes alive again, buzzing with anticipation but unable to think of anything interesting to chant or any songs to sing. Don’t these people have an anthem? …anthem …anthem …anthem
Aarrgh! Hearing that bloody anthem in my gulliver again has suddenly brought to mind Jim Rosenthal and made me feel like poor Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Have a viddy at this chelloveck, o my droogies and share my pain…
Soon after the equaliser, there is a bizarre interlude when the home goalkeeper Nita, saving at Doumbia’s feet, immediately writhes around like a toddler, portraying “agony” in the approved continental style. To my English eyes he is manifestly not injured, but he spends a good few minutes lying in the area being attended to by the physios and then moves gingerly for the next ten minutes. He does indeed appear to have hurt his knee. In the ’90s that would definitely have been Johnny Foreigner feigning injury to waste time, to Clive Tyldesley’s disapproval. Or maybe my English eyes are just too far away to judge these things.
The biggest talent on show is the tricky winger Gelson Martins, who is giving his opponents the run-around. His team-mate Fabio Coentrao has attracted the most abuse from the crowd. I assume it’s because he famously once did something that I missed but that we should all disapprove of, like Craig Bellamy or John Selwyn Gummer, but it could just be the hair. FCSB right-back Gabriel Enache has had a noticeably poor game (thanks Adam, who noticed) and has been barracked by his own fans. He was the missing marker for the first goal, in truth the Romanian international is a midfielder reconditioned to fit into a makeshift defence. He is one of five members of Astra’s 2016 title-winning side in the starting lineup tonight, but after the game Becali makes it clear he does not want to see Enache in the team again.
Three halves of football and it’s still level. Except, of course, that Sporting will go through on away goals if it stays like this. Their performance has dropped off somewhat since they scored, and the game has turned scrappy. For quarter of an hour of the second half, the home team are still very much in this game, Brian. But they lack a spark: Budescu has been so anonymous I don’t even notice that he’s been substituted for at least half an hour, and the underwhelming midfield of Filip and Popescu has offered little control.
After an hour the Bison, club golgheter (top scorer) Harlem Gnohere, is introduced in place of Golofca to partner Alibec. It’s almost as if the coach has decided that having one man up front was not after all a great way to approach a must-win game. Unfortunately, this change is in response to the Romanians going behind again. Nita comes out of his area to meet a measured ball through the middle intended for Acuna, but the keeper and Enache both fail to deal with it and the Argentine scores his first Sporting goal in an unguarded net. Just three minutes later FCSB lose the ball lamely once more in midfield, Alibec goes into his trademark teenage-style sulk and stops altogether in the Sporting half while the Portuguese break swiftly. The lively Gelson dribbles to the edge of the area and shoots across Nita into the far corner, putting the tie beyond FCSB’s reach at 3-1. The stream of supporters leaving the stands with nearly half an hour remaining reflects their confidence in the team’s ability to score three times – which is understandable, from tonight’s evidence.
Everything is now very easy for the visitors, who have grown hugely in confidence since the second goal relieved the pressure. The Romanian midfield has vapourised since Golofca’s departure as Teixeira has pushed forward in hope of a goal, and the defence continues to look shaky. The small green and white contingent to our left ramps up the volume, while the home spectators flow resignedly towards the exit, after seeing yet another rapid counter-attack bear fruit in the 75th minute: Gelson’s trans-boxian pass flummoxes the defenders and allows substitute Bas Dost to add the fourth. There is even time (and plenty of space) for one more goal, completing a humiliation, a rout, a pasting, but even the people who upload highlights videos to YouTube seem to have left by this time.
Sporting’s venture into the next round offers the enticing prospect of Barcelona and Juventus (and Olympiakos, who are at least bona fide league champions). No such lucrative fixtures for FCSB, but they have a place in the Europa League group stage as consolation. I can’t help thinking that that is where the Romanian runners-up really belong. But I do realise that that argument, like Brian Moore’s commentary, is something that viewers have condemned to the distant past. Everyone else has moved on and accepted the silliness of the “Champions” League and its underpinning values**; I’ve just increasingly ignored it as the years have passed. Just as I will ignore the second best team in Romania in their matches against Viktoria Plzen (whom they’ve already beaten this season), plucky Lugano and the mighty Hapoel Be’ersheva. Becali announces immediately after the game that he does not care about the Europa League.
But now he’s seen the draw he’s pretty confident of getting through and (for this is of course the ultimate aim) earning more euros from UEFA. They ought to progress but, as with everything this team ought to do, it will be unsurprising when they fail to do it and also fun to watch the proprietor’s reaction.
*Handel’s footballing connections are underappreciated. Growing up in Saxony, the young Georg Friedrich rarely missed a home game at SV Halle, where he was taken by his father Georg senior, a former wing half for SV who had gone on to represent, unusually, both Saxe-Weissenfels and later the Margraviate of Brandenburg. The renown thus earned brought a free lifetime season ticket at his hometown club for himself and his direct male descendants. Several years after his own move to London, Georg Friedrich was able to use his leverage with the new King George I (himself a lapsed Hannover 96 fan) to ensure that the boys from Halle would receive regular invitations to meaningless pre-season friendly tournaments at Hampton Court. This kind gesture from a powerful compatriot did not stop Georg Friedrich from adopting Fulham as his second team. Everyone likes Fulham a bit.