It’s Romania’s National Day, my family are away, and Voluntari are playing the league leaders at home. This has the makings of a day to be frittered away watching military parades, reading about football on the internet, and getting drizzled on near some mediocre sport.Ziua națională a României celebrates an event which took place in the Transylvanian town of Alba Iulia on 1st December 1918. An assembly of delegates representing the Romanian inhabitants of the region voted for the union of Transylvania with Romania, this being known as Marea Unire, the “Great Union”. But I just found out that the National Day hasn’t always been on 1st December: during the Communist era the big day was 23rd August (to mark the start of the armed insurrection against Nazi occupation in 1944), while, before that, it was celebrated on 10th May, the anniversary of the accession to the throne of Carol I in 1866. (As usual, I read about these things so that you don’t have to.
Except you just did.)
Not surprisingly, when 1st December was chosen in 1990, there was some adverse reaction from the (well over a million) Magyar population in Romania: the Alba Iulia declaration, or rather the subsequent redrawing of borders at the Paris peace conference, is much resented by Hungarians. A divisive choice, to say the least.
The country marks its national day most visibly with patriotic militarism: a big parade of tanks, missiles and souped-up transit vans in camouflage colours takes over the boulevards of northern Bucharest. It is watched by families happily waving their tricolour flags and sombre old men in furry hats with a faraway look in their eyes. (Anyone old enough to have fought in Romania’s last war must be ninety. But Bucharest does have a lot of sombre old men in furry hats with a faraway look in their eyes anyway, so it could be coincidence.) The city parks are dotted with jandarmeria brass bands and fire safety demonstrations while above your head some jets do their impressive air-display thing.
So the narrative is in place, ready for me to activate when it’s time for the football. For I am going to watch the league leaders, the supposedly “Hungarian club” CFR Cluj, at FC Voluntari. Voluntari, founded in 2010 on the outskirts of the capital, are in their third season in the top flight. After two years of having to play evening games elsewhere because their ground had no floodlights, finally the Anghel Iordanescu Stadium is fully kitted out.
CFR Cluj is a club over a hundred years older than Voluntari. It began in 1907, when Transylvania was in Hungary, as Kolozsvári Vasutas Sport Club (KVSC), the railways’ team. Renamed in Romanian following Marea Unire as CFR Cluj, they never knew success and were overshadowed by rivals Universitatea (“U”) Cluj until 2002, when the club was bought by local businessman Árpád Pászkány. The next decade brought three league titles, three Romanian Cups and three appearances in the Champions League group stages. After a few years of financial chaos and points deductions, they seem to be back on the straight and narrow again and, with Dan Petrescu at the helm, are top of the table. They have kept 13 clean sheets in 19 league matches so far this season, including the last four, while Voluntari have only one win in eight and have scored just one goal in their last four. The stats do not suggest a home win.
It is dark and drizzly, though not as cold as it was at this other game. The stadium may now have floodlights, but it still hasn’t got anywhere to buy refreshments, or functioning turnstiles. When we enter the new stand, Tribuna I, there is a bunch of home fans brandishing flags: the Romanian tricolour, a couple of monochrome club ones, and one proud Union Jack. The guy waving it shouts something in English at us as we walk past towards the empty section at the halfway line. He probably recognises one of my companions for his TV appearances as a member of Concordia Chiajna’s celebrated foreign legion. Up the far end, the ultras in the peluza are singing the national anthem and chanting “România.” Although it now has many Romanian fans and the two Cluj clubs are nowadays apparently divided more along class than ethnic lines, CFR is still seen by outsiders as the club of the Hungarians – partly because the owner is a Magyar, and partly because “U” was founded in 1919 as a specifically Romanian entity. Hence, I presume, the accentuated patriotism on show from the home supporters – even though there are no actual Hungarians in today’s CFR team, which is rather foreigner-heavy.
It’s a waste of breath, because not one away fan shows up. Not that they could easily be spotted if they did, since both teams wear the same colours: a very familiar dark red and white. I did not feel comfortable bringing my Rapid scarf and hat, which both say “Rapid” on them prominently, but I can proudly wear my son’s plain, striped scarf in the same colours, a gift from a Hearts-supporting friend.
A week or so ago, Voluntari added to their enviable collection of superannuated ex-international midfielders you vaguely remember from somewhere else, by signing the most gifted player/biggest waste of talent of his generation, the mercurial Lucian Sânmărtean, who made his top-flight debut in 1999 and is now 37. The club already had Florin Cernat (36, top flight debut 1998), Costin Lazăr (36, top flight debut 2001) and the greying Laurentiu Marinescu (a sprightly 33, top flight debut 2003). Sadly only the latter two start the match tonight, and Sânmărtean, “the Magician”, does not even make the bench. Defender Vasile Maftei (36, top flight debut 2001), I find out, has just taken his beard and left to join fourth-division Academia Rapid.
The home goalkeeper wastes no time in demonstrating his preference for the flap-and-punch even when a catch would obviously be more sensible. The distinctively elderly and grizzled-looking Lazăr is captain and plays the midfield general role well. But his team lack creativity and accuracy going forward, and after a cagey first fifteen minutes the visitors do start to look superior. CFR muster several good crosses into the box but can’t quite finish one off; the ripped Deac is lively upfront, though he might cause more damage if he could actually kick with his right foot [bugbear alert]. The crowd, such as it is, is subdued, most of the entertainment arising from the game of second-guessing which way the referee is going to give the free-kick whenever someone goes down. The stadium’s acoustics are so strange, and the place so sparsely populated, that a heavy challenge on the far side sounds almost like a firecracker at a more exciting match. Shortly before half time, the away side manage to do a goal, when the number 9, Frenchman Omrani, beats the Voluntari keeper low down at his near post from just inside the area.
Voluntari find some energy and a slight threat early in the second half, but are unable to equalise. With quarter of an hour remaining, CFR’s Deac goes on a mazy run from the touchline in his own half, towards the penalty area, unchallenged, where he one-twos with Omrani and finishes low to the keeper’s right, again. Two-nil, and, in the absence of any away fans, he rips his shirt off and flaunts his six-pack to the TV camera. Just four minutes later the defence stands by accommodatingly to watch Păun chest the ball down in the box and complete the rout. Voluntari have not even mustered a shot on target, and their declared ambition to go for the play-off looks unlikely: now in tenth spot, they have six games left to make up a nine-point deficit to that all-important sixth place. CFR, on the other hand, extend their lead over FCSB at the top.
Friday 1 December, 2017, 8.45pm.
Stadion Anghel Iordanescu, Voluntari, Ilfov County.
Ticket price for Tribuna I: 10 lei (£2). The official attendance has not yet been published but a few hundred seems about right.