“Coming up this week: the giants of Charlton play host to the titans of Ipswich… making them both seem normal size.” …as David Mitchell says so portentously in this marvellous clip.
This Saturday – Rapid v Steaua – is a clash between giants and titans, two of the biggest clubs in the country facing off in (of all places) the fourth division, almost the bottom level of the senior football pyramid. The occasion permits us to pretend.
To pretend that going to a Romanian football match is something to look forward to.
To pretend that attendances at Romanian football matches are healthy.
To pretend that football in Romania is, generally, OK.
We could go on to examine each of these conceits in turn and use facts and figures to dismiss them, until we are all dead-eyed, cold and shivering on the sick-strewn carpet tiles. But there is no immediate need: if you are reading this, you are probably interested enough to know perfectly well that things are (to put it euphemistically) NOT GOOD on this country’s football scene. If you don’t know that already, or if you need a refresher, there is an excellent article here which you ought to read.
So now I’ll take it as read. But there are also things specific to this weekend’s big game which we, the participants and engaged spectators, shall agree to pretend. Firstly, that we are going to see Rapid Bucharest take on Steaua Bucharest in one of Romania’s longest-running and weightiest clashes. The derby of the number 41 tram line. A fixture which has taken place over 125 times since Steaua’s foundation by the new Communist authorities seven decades ago. A fixture which, as recently as 2006, decided a UEFA Cup semi-finalist.
And yet these are not those clubs. These are new foundations, playing their first ever seasons in competition. The newly-formed Academia Rapid, backed by the mayor of Sector 1 (and, by implication, taxpayers’ money) does not own the rights to the name of the old Rapid Bucharest, which is in abeyance after its dissolution in the summer of 2016. But neither does anyone else: they haven’t gone on sale yet. Legally (for now at least) this is a different club, merely renting the right to the name (apparently for €5,000 per month) but claiming continuity from the old entity.
The Steaua case has been running for much longer. Read this article to catch up if you don’t know what’s been going on. This new, army-run CSA Steaua does have the legal right to its name, after successful litigation against Gigi Becali, who bought Steaua in the early 2000s but is now forced to call his club “FC FCSB”. Steaua fans have a choice, and it’s no longer just between supporting Becali’s club and staying at home. Certain supporters’ groups are enjoying being part of the new venture, feeling unsullied by Becali’s antics and the moribund world of today’s top flight. CSA Steaua hope to be in Liga 1 in three years, by which time the Ghencea stadium will have been renovated to tip-top condition.
So there is a distinction between these two clubs, in the legal basis for claiming to be the real deal. But, again, aren’t we only pretending that the law courts are the arbiter of football clubs’ “true” identity? Can a club really call itself a continuation of the old one simply because it bought the rights at auction? The point was made, when Rapid went bust in 2016, that Becali – or anyone – could buy the Rapid name when it comes up for sale and spuriously claim that his club is no longer “FC FCSB” but the glorious Rapid Bucharest. Problems, problems.
But also we pretend that it’s not totally weird, and a painful indictment of the state of the game, to have these two sides meeting in the Bucharest municipal league rather than the top flight. Rapid’s venerable stadium has a much reduced capacity of just 9,100 these days, but a full house will be a bigger crowd than any of the last round of Liga 1 games.* In the top flight, minnows such as Juventus, forced to play home matches in distant towns due to the inadequacy of their own facilities, are recording attendances as low as 150. Clubs in Liga 2 are still going bust at an alarming rate and many others are in dire trouble, unable to pay their players, while historically successful and meaningful clubs, some reborn as supporter-led initiatives, grind their way through the divisions. Petrolul, U Cluj, Farul Constanța and Oțelul Galați, for instance, are all in Liga 3 right now and heading back upwards, in front of appreciative crowds, so by 2020 we may have a healthier situation at the top.
Where were we? Ah yes, pretending.
So let’s pretend that this really is the latest in the long tradition of Rapid v Steaua derbies. A fixture that has decided league titles, two cup finals and several Supercups over the years. One intense encounter was the 1999 Cupa României final. After four late goals the match finished 2-2 and was settled on penalties. Steaua were captained that night by one of Romania’s most celebrated players of all time, winner of ten league titles and 84 caps, Marius Lăcătuș. The final penalty in the shootout was taken by Rapid’s young substitute striker, a certain Daniel Pancu. His shot was saved, and thus Steaua denied their rivals the league and cup double.
Now, in October 2017, Lăcătuș is the technical director at CSA Steaua; one of his counterparts at Academia Rapid, Pancu, will hope also to play up front on Saturday evening, rolling back the years once again. There are other connections too: Steaua’s marvellously-monikered first-team coach Ion Ion was a much-admired midfielder in his day, for Rapid as well as Steaua. In a 2015 interview he waxed lyrical about the “fantastic” fans at Giulești in the early ’80s: “It was an incredible thing. I used to look at the opposition; they were scared!” Steaua’s current sporting director and the man who captained the team on that night in Seville in 1986, Ştefan Iovan, also played for Rapid, though less successfully.
I was at the last match between
these two teams teams with very similar names to these, in February 2015. It was the closest I’ve come to being hit by a flare, so far. Pancu and Daniel Niculae were there too, in the team. Quite an occasion. I wrote about it here.
The two clubs diverge in their approach to escaping this division. In the summer CSA Steaua bought an entire cohort of 19- and 20-year-olds from a very successful (Atletico Madrid-affiliated) local academy, Regal Sport, for around 30,000 euros. Several of those players have represented Romania at junior levels. The most experienced player in the Steaua squad is 23-year-old goalkeeper and captain, Horia Iancu, who has two seasons of occasional Liga 2 matches behind him. They have won all six of their matches, scoring 45 goals and conceding one. Their last game was their poorest so far: they won 1-0 with a late goal away at AS Tricolor.
Meanwhile Academia Rapid spent their summer collecting experience; even now, barely a week goes by without rumours of some former Giulești terrace hero joining the ageing stars, Niculae and Pancu. Some young players moved with their coach from AFC Rapid, but the team’s play has been mostly notable for its lack of cohesion so far. They too have six wins, but also one draw, 0-0 in their last game, against Comprest GIM. They too have conceded a solitary goal, but have only netted 26 themselves. The visitors are big favourites for this game, but the hosts will be hoping they can benefit from their familiarity with the big stadium and the big crowd.**
The financial playing field in Bucharest Liga 4 has been totally skewed by the investment in both of these clubs. The annual budgets are enormous for this level: €150,000 for CSA and €320,000 for Academia are the reported figures, many, many times more than the other teams can call on. Depending on which source you believe, the players are earning somewhere between €200 and €450 per month, with a win bonus of €40 on top. This compares pretty well with reported salaries in Liga 2, and even better with the other teams in this division, most of whom pay to play.
Lăcătuș said this week that nobody comes into football to win 20-0 in front of 300 people: matches like this are the reason they get up in the morning. And you can tell it’s a really big game because there is controversy over the choice of referee. The encounter will be broadcast live on TV – it clashes with CSM Poli Iaşi v CSU Craiova in Liga 1, but there will be no need to compare the viewing figures afterwards.
So, for one night only, these giants and titans will find a match for each other, and will temporarily appear normal size. It is a welcome distraction from how terrible everything else is in Romanian football. A reminder of what the game can sometimes be. The result doesn’t really matter, since there will be a four-team promotion play-off at the end of the season, with all points wiped out beforehand.
But let’s pretend, eh?
*On Sunday even more people will see the more popular of the two Politehnica Timişoaras face UTA Arad in the “Western Derby”. In Liga 2, of course.
**CSA Steaua play home games on a pitch in the Ghencea sports complex which only accommodates 1,500 spectators.