It’s the biggest game of the season. The ancient academy takes on the army of youth. Yes, the Eternal Non-League Derby is back! And it’s bigger than ever!Here’s how the Bucharest Liga 4 table looks:
And here is the stadium where this tussle between first and second will take place:
…because this is what the scene looked like in the reverse fixture, in a much smaller ground, in October:
I wrote at length (but still informatively and entertainingly, so you should definitely read it all) about the October clash at the time (see here for the extensive preview and here for the rather more cursory match report). So what has happened in the meantime?
Academia Rapid have still not secured the rights to the name, badge, history etc. of the defunct Rapid Bucharest club. Their “general manager” is no longer former Rapid defender Ovidiu Burcă, but former Rapid defender Nicolae Stanciu. A bid for funding from the Sector 1 council has been delayed, opposed by certain members who do not want to see public money spent on footballers’ wages; however, the shady, controversial and hugely powerful politician Liviu Dragnea has recently been closely linked with the financing of the club. The acquisition of 37-year-old Vasile Maftei – who was playing in Liga 1 for Voluntari earlier this season – onto the playing staff brings their tally of former Rapid captains to five, if we include Stanciu and the coach Constantin Schumacher. This Academia Rapid squad now boasts over 1000 Liga 1 appearances, 78 caps for Romania, six Romanian league titles and nine Romanian Cups.
Yet not everyone is behind this version of the club.
Maftei’s predecessor as club captain, Adrian Iencsi, has this week nailed his colours to the Academia mast but reiterates that AFC Rapid, who play in the same division as Academia, are the true continuation of the old club. AFC, however, though run by a man heavily involved in the last administration of the defunct entity, have no money, nowhere to train, and have been forced to play their home matches wherever will have them. Legal action by Academia to stop them using the Rapid name has not yet produced a definitive result, but Academia cannot obtain the legal status they would need in order to compete in Liga 3 – a national competition run by the Romanian FA – while AFC still exists. A third team, ACS Rapid Frumosii Nebuni ai Giulestiului, or “the Beautiful Crazies”, has started playing in Liga 5; this is a club founded by a group of fans with a view to keeping the finances free of political interference and greedy owners. Their first match at Giulesti took place a couple of weeks ago, when about three hundred people (including Romaniaballs) turned up to sing, chant and wave banners non-stop throughout a 2-2 draw between two groups of enthusiastic amateurs.
As usual, the approaching big match has drummed up a lot of interest in the media. 15,000 tickets were sold in the first 36 hours, and the match will be shown live on DigiSport 1 at prime time. But with the excitement and curiosity comes a lot of speculative rubbish. Following stories earlier in the season that the FA might allow both CSA and Academia promotion to Liga 3, there are now rumours that they might both be allowed to leapfrog that level and go straight into Liga 2! This seems ludicrous – which doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it’s clearly not right. There is also less outlandish chatter about a possible merger between Academia and AFC, which must surely have been under negotiation of some kind behind the scenes for months, if any of them have any sense.
The Steaua community is also divided. This week, with the hugely increased media interest in the two clubs ahead of Saturday’s game, both Helmuth Duckadam, goalkeeping hero of the 1986 European Cup winners, and Ilie Dumitrescu, star striker of the golden generation, have come out in support of Becali’s FCSB. FCSB’s sporting director Mihai Stoica has called CSA “a joke” and claimed that everyone involved is out to get Becali. Meanwhile the squad, whose top-flight experience amounts to 30 appearances split between two new January recruits, has been continuing to beat all-comers since the 1-1 draw with Academia in the autumn.
So what does Saturday evening have in store for the spectator? Plenty of noise. Will there be as many flares permitted in the smart, modern stadium as there were at the decrepit Giulesti in October? One thing seems sure: the talismanic 40-year-old Daniel Pancu – who moves a bit like a Subbuteo figure but is comfortably the most skilful player in the league – will not be fit to start, and we’ll be lucky to see him make a substitute appearance. Shame.
The two sides have warmed up for Saturday with 8-0 (Rapid) and 9-0 (Steaua) wins to cement their places in the play-off spots. There will certainly be more fans than the (actually pretty decent) 22,000 who watched the two best-supported sides in Liga 1 this Monday night, league leaders FCSB beating third-placed U Craiova at the same venue. A tiny band of rebel supporters smuggled in a banner at that game, saying “14th April, Steaua Bucharest fills the National Stadium!” The world record fourth-tier attendance of over 49,000, set by East Stirling at Ibrox in 2012, is not in danger, but surely this is technically non-league and I defy you to find a bigger non-league league fixture anywhere on God’s great earth. Haide!