Stardate: Saturday 14th April 2018. Kick-off: 7.45pm.
Venue: Arena Naţionala, Bucharest.
Competition: Liga 4 (Bucharest).
Ticket price: 25 RON (£5) for row 2 in sector 111 of Tribuna II (the east stand).
“Rapid a înviat.”
“Rapid has risen.” So said striker Daniel Pancu, in a timely Easter reference, after Saturday’s game at the Arena Naţionala. Academia Rapid had outplayed CSA Steaua and deservedly won by three goals to one. The occasion had been hugely hyped as the big event of the domestic footballing calendar (see my preview here for more on that); the place was hopping and, let’s be fair, the football was surprisingly good for this level. An alb-vişiniu side that, at home in October, seemed ponderous and lacked cohesion, last night looked fitter, brighter and more organised than their much less experienced opponents. Steaua’s dangerous striker (40 league goals this season) Alin Predescu’s only threat to the Accies’ goal came in first-half injury time, when a penalty was harshly awarded for a (completely unavoidable) handball by Daniel Niculae following a pinballesque scramble in the box.
Niculae had only just given his team the lead, finishing a cross from the right with a cool volley, while the militarii had created nothing up to that point. Predescu scored from the spot in expert fashion, hard and low to the goalkeeper’s right, but he was to have no joy from open play against a well-marshalled defence made up mostly of bald, bearded blokes who used to play in Liga 1. After 45 minutes, then, the score, and even the scorers, were the same as in the reverse fixture in the autumn. Needless to say, each scorer had enjoyed celebrating in front of their opposing fans this time also. Predescu, who started the game as number 10, is by this point wearing 7 (which his sporting director, the legendary Marius Lăcătuș, used to wear in the good old days) because his shirt has got ripped and there are no spares.
Both sets of supporters have set a high standard in their display work: shortly after kickoff the Rapid end unfurls a huge tifo of seven of their contemporary totems, with Pancu in the centre flanked by coach Constantin Schumacher and captain Daniel Niculae. Pancu bears an unfortunate resemblance to that squashed-face statue of Cristiano Ronaldo at Madeira Airport. The steliştii respond with a silvery concoction involving two hands and some sort of rosette, whose significance I fail to appreciate. The opposing peluze engage in a to-and-fro of rhyming couplets on painted banners, designed to insult their antagonists, for the entire duration of the match, providing a welcome distraction from the main story of the half: not the football, but the lamentable sight of fans fighting each other and running amok in worrying fashion.
Halfway through the first half, a small band of fat topless hooligans manage to escape the southern end, home of the Steaua ultras, and run along the front row of the tribuna – precisely one row of seats away from where we are – on their way to rumble with some “gypsies”, i.e. Rapid fans. They are eventually thwarted and removed, but their mates continue to cause trouble in the peluza, large numbers of jandarmeria being required to subdue infighting in the corner closest to us. Post-match, a CSA Steaua spokesperson blames the problems in their end on FCSB supporters who have infiltrated the ranks in order to cause trouble; a banner reading (upside-down) “FCSB=Steaua” later in the game doesn’t help. Fingers are pointed too at the security firm, who were contracted because theirs was the cheapest tender. Some of the stewards are weedy teenagers, and their ineffectiveness perhaps contributes to the disproportionate response from the riot police, who unleash enough tear gas at the south stand to get half the population of our east stand covering their mouths and noses with shirts and scarves. Gabi Balint, a special guest as part of the 1986 European champions’ team, and seated in the VIP area on the far side, had to leave during the second half because of discomfort caused by the gas.
Steaua goalkeeper Iancu is at fault when Academia retake the lead, eight minutes into the second half. He comes for the corner, misses it, and the ball bounces to Burlacu who has no trouble tucking it away from close range. Shirt off, a leap over the hoarding, aggressive high-fives for a couple of blokes in the front row of the peluza, group hug with team-mates, and back to work. Then, a few minutes later, the killer blow: Niculae intercepts a poor ball from the full-back and his first-time pass splits and turns a stretched back line; Goge draws the defenders and offloads to Vlada for the finish past Iancu. Captain Niculae has looked the real deal this evening; his fitness, commitment and influence were questionable earlier in the season but his experience (almost 40 caps for Romania) and match intelligence have been crucial – and he is certainly not pulling out of challenges any more.
A pitch invasion after the third goal, by a couple of harmless Rapid numpties running towards the Steaua end, causes the stewards more trouble than it should. But then, bad behaviour has been the theme of the evening. After the match, Predescu apologises for the provocative gestures he made to the rapidiştii after equalising, saying that he only did it because he’s young and he loves Steaua, before concluding that “in the future I’ll try not to do that kind of thing”. During the second half, true role model Pancu – whose very existence is provocative to Rapid’s enemies – warms up in the corner by the Steaua ultras. They throw coins and firecrackers at him; with gusto he aims explicitly offensive gestures at the entire peluza. In the end a jandarm has to remove him and escort him back to the bench, where he seems to sulk until his late substitute appearance. He explains afterwards that “I’ve always behaved like a youngster; I’ve never thought of myself as a wise person.” Pancu will be 41 years old in August.
Officialdom’s penultimate act of the occasion is to misread the attendance figure: it is announced as 26,000. A few minutes later it is amended to 36,000. Not quite the level that some had been predicting during the week, when it was felt that the world fourth-tier record could be under threat, but easily the biggest crowd for a Romanian domestic game so far this season. This occasion, and the enormous attention on it, will have benefited both clubs, but neither can afford to stay in the county league. Academia have shown themselves to be slightly ahead of CSA in the race for the single promotion place to Liga 3, and this will intensify in a month or so when the play-off phase begins.
For a load more match reports, see this section of the blog.
Acknowledgement: all photos in this post courtesy of Mrs Romaniaballs, on the occasion of her first Romanian football experience.