A gulf in class

Or, from Hope to Anger in Two Easy Steps. Extraordinary scenes at two contrasting venues on Friday night. Read on for Academia Rapid v CS Progresul 2005, in Liga 4; and Romania v Armenia, in the World Cup qualifiers.

Kicking off at 8pm, it’s Academia Rapid’s hotly anticipated first ever competitive match, at the historic, decrepit Giulești stadium. We have paid 10 lei (£2) for seats in Tribuna II. I’ve bought the tickets online the day before, to avoid a scenario like last year, when the first match of the season had to be delayed because hundreds of supporters were still in the queue for the one operational ticket booth.

giulesti wall
The entrance to Tribuna II.

ACADEMIA RAPID fact file

Formed: August 2017

Financial backing: Sector 1 municipality + mystery private investor

General manager: Ovidiu Burcă (37), ex-Dinamo and Rapid defender.

Sporting directors (also registered as players):

  • Daniel “Nico” Niculae (34), league and cup winner with Rapid as a striker (39 caps, 9 goals for Romania).
  • Daniel “Pancone” Pancu (40), league and cup winner with Rapid as a striker (27 caps, 9 goals for Romania).

Head coach: Constantin Schumacher (41), ex-Rapid midfielder (1 cap for Romania).

acad rapid presser
(l-r) Schumacher, Pancu, Niculae and Burca at the Sector 1 town hall. [Source: gsp.ro]
Rapid fans are divided. As is the football-watching community. There are disputes as to who is the true successor to the old Rapid Bucharest, and the truth is more complicated than it might appear at first. Legally it can apparently be argued that AFC Rapid – who lost 3-0 away at Carmen in their first Liga 4 fixture – “owns” the 2002 cup win and the 2003 league title. But not the 2006 Cup win, or the 1999 league championship?

This weekend, even the 1923.ro fan site, a prime driver of support for AFC Rapid over the past year – and even until last week – seems to be moving away from its position, in the interests of unity. The problem is not just that the coach and several players from last season’s successful Liga 5 campaign have moved to Academia; AFC is run by a discredited ally of the previous management (which shamelessly pushed the struggling old club into bankruptcy) and has not prepared well over the summer for an assault on Liga 4.

Not that Academia is whiter than white. Many fans are sceptical of the motives behind the Sector 1 council’s decision to support the new entity; others hold dear their club’s reputation for being outsiders untarnished by any government involvement; and Sector 1 tax-payers might have something to say about their money being used for such purposes in what should be the private (and, let’s face it, rather dirty) market of football: legally, council investment in sport is capped at €15 million per year, more than the budget of Romania’s richest club. And there have been rumours that the club’s major mystery financier will be revealed as a businessman convicted of bribery (fittingly enough, in a case related to railway transport).

Because of this schism, I’m not expecting a huge turnout. During the walk from Crângași metro half an hour before kickoff I see only about four or five obvious rapidişti. So I am surprised when we get inside and find a couple of thousand fans shuffling along the rickety rows of seats in Tribuna II. There are plenty of flags – mostly missing last season – and when the voices get going properly there are chants and songs I don’t recognise, evidently mothballed during the ignominious events of the past year and a bit. I look around and there is now a Boothferry Park’s worth in the ground (this is the crowd measurement unit employed by my brother-in-law, who’s from Hull. It equates to three thousand of your Earth people), not just in our stand but in the peluza too, and even across the other side in the usually deserted Tribuna I. IMG_20170901_202049169.jpgBut still the flow of humanity doesn’t stop and, you know what, there’s actually a proper buzz. The anthem, played as the teams walk out, is louder and more rousing than I’ve heard it in a long time. (With its jolly chorus “haide hai Rapid Giulești”, it’s a joint paean to the football team and to a best-forgotten British holiday camp sitcom from the 1980s.) I’m sure that many people are here for the prospect of seeing some of their heroes from better days, but for me it’s also a feeling that with this new club, ethically dubious or not, there is some small hope that Rapid has a future.

The future begins very soon after kickoff. In the third minute a wonderful threaded through ball finds Boian on the right: his first-time low cross into the six-yard box is met by Cătălin Bărbălău, who scores Academia Rapid’s first ever competitive goal. A neat coincidence, given that he also scored AFC Rapid’s first goal (in the 4th minute) in Liga 5 just under a year ago. [Match report from that unforgettable occasion here!]

It has quickly become clear that this match is competitive only in the official sense. CS Progresul 2005 are way out of their depth. A Thomas Gravesen lookalike ploughs a lonely furrow* up front, skilful but slow; a short, slight, grey-haired, older gentleman, who resembles Didier Deschamps at his most Wilfrid Brambellesque, guards the net; a smattering of other veterans and one or two pacy youngsters dot the field to little effect. They are mostly nowhere near fit enough, and I’d boldly guess that not one of them has played in front of 6,834 spectators before. Leading the forward line for the home side, by way of contrast, is former international striker Daniel Niculae, last seen in these parts when the old Rapid was in Liga 1 three seasons ago – usually playing, incidentally, in front of much smaller crowds than tonight’s.

T2 crowd
Tribuna II.

The ball is rarely seen in the Rapid half or at the feet of a Progresul player: the game is a turkey shoot, but with added fish in a barrel. Progresul are 2-0 down five minutes in, and the home fans (there are no away fans of course), if they weren’t already convinced, are already assured of a relaxing and enjoyable evening. It’s Niculae who scores the second goal, which provides a great opportunity for a little routine the fans and selected players engage in, involving wiggling fingers on outstretched arms, a shouted chorus of something like “wuzza wuzza, weh, eh, wuzza wuzza, weh, eh”, and some sharp movements of both hands and/or arms towards an appreciative crowd from the chosen player. Picturing that nice and clearly? Good. I need to ask a Romanian what the hell that’s all about, because I’ve often wondered, but it’s a welcome display of fraternity between these two parts of the Rapid family.

The half ends 4-0, with the crowd and players in good spirits, especially “Nico”, who is clearly having a great time and can even laugh off this startling miss:

Niculae 1

We leave as soon as the whistle blows, as we have another game to get to. We’ve coughed up 15 lei apiece (£3) to watch Romania take on Armenia in a World Cup qualifier, and we don’t want to chuck money away. So we head back to the metro, destination: Muncii. Which means we don’t see Niculae completing a hat-trick with this second-half beauty:

Niculae 2

Nor do we witness Progresul’s elderly goalkeeper being replaced by Billy from Kes. He can’t be more than 15 and it’s heartbreaking, watching the highlights on YouTube, to see this kid ship six goals in the last half hour. The match will finish 13-0. Thirteen-nil. I wonder what delights the national team have in store…

kes goalie
[Source: Vasi Sports YouTube channel]
I’ve misjudged the amount of time we need to get across town. Should have just got a taxi. Armed gendarmes greet us off the metro at Muncii: mounted police and officers with dogs are escorting a troop of black-clad ultras to the game. Slowly. We’re caught up among them and it’s already 9.45pm, kickoff time. We have to walk halfway around the outside of the stadium before being allowed in, so by the time we get into the Peluza Nord we’ve missed the first twelve minutes. I will later be grateful for this, as the game is desperately poor from start to finish. Romania look like they’ve never met before and seem unable to string three passes together. They do have two goals disallowed, including a backheel, but they miss a penalty, play with an extra man for forty minutes, and generally look incompetent against a team they beat 5-0 in Yerevan last year. Manchester United’s Henryk Mkhitaryan is captaining Armenia – not that you’d have noticed, although as a team they’ve been tidy in possession and have threatened a few times. The travelling fans, below us and to the right, number about twenty but are very vocal.

If anything, the injury-time winner for Romania is a disappointment: they still stand virtually no chance of qualifying, so it just prolongs the agony and keeps the unfortunate national team coach Christoph Daum in post… at least until the likely defeat in Montenegro next Monday. But much of the last fifteen minutes of the match is played out to chants of “De-mi-sia!” [“Resign!”] directed at the dugout. Daum is not a popular man.

P.S. The army’s new CSA Steaua also played their first match, earlier in the day. A good time was had by all, it seems: they beat Venus 1914 six-nil on pitch number 5 in the Ghencea sports complex, watched by around a thousand spectators eager for something to believe in again.

So a World Cup qualifier, like most international matches ever?, is best forgotten, but seeing another new Rapid team burst emotionally into life will linger in the memory a long while. Only three Liga 1 matches in Bucharest so far this season have had a larger attendance; whatever the rights and wrongs of the messy situation, this could actually be the start of something…

*copyright every football writer ever

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