These things elicit a certain reaction from me, which I cannot control: Chrissy Waddle’s mullet; Platty’s last-gasp volley against Belgium; the ball ballooning off Paul Parker’s back and over Shilton’s head into the net; and, especially, Gary Lineker gesturing to the bench to “have a word”. And if you spent a lifetime striving to compose a piece of music perfectly suited to soundtracking slow-motion footage of men in short shorts glowing with sweat on hot Italian evenings, fouling each other, diving extravagantly to get each other booked, and missing important penalties, you could not do better than the lad Puccini with his smash hit aria Nessun Dorma.
Italia ’90 is often disparaged as a dud. And with good reason. After the shiny exuberance of Mexico ’86, when the world game seemed dominated by dazzling playmakers – Platini, Zico, Laudrup, Scifo, and Maradona of course – and teams such as Denmark, Brazil and the USSR played with now-legendary panache, the dreadfully dour, defensive and downright dirty fare on offer in Italy disappointed. 2.21 goals per game is the lowest rate of any World Cup before or since, and the total of sixteen red cards included two in the first game and two in the (terrible) final. But all I know of 1986, beyond those Maradona goals against England, is what I’ve read as an adult. 1990 was my first World Cup, when I was ten years old, and in emotional terms no other can touch it.
It’s also the first time I can remember being aware of Romania, other than a vague sense that it had been in the news. (But then, even as a map-obsessed child, much of my early knowledge of the world and its languages, which would develop into a lifelong passion, came from international football.) I remember this guy Lăcătuș, with a bob-cum-bowlcut-cum-mullet, running fast and scoring all the goals.
Then nothing, until David O’Leary’s decisive spot-kick sent the Romanians home. I was at Cubs that evening, and our pack leaders – Akela and (I think) Bagheera – were an Irish couple; I remember him glued to the game in a back room of the church hall where we had our meetings, and then we all sat and watched this novelty, the penalty shootout, blissfully unaware of the anguish this method of getting rid of a football match would bring me a week or so later. Bagheera was very pleased.
If you’re English, a football fan, and of a certain age, you probably know the background to England’s 1990 World Cup campaign. The press vilification of the manager, Terry Butcher’s bloody head and so on. Romania is probably one of the few other countries (Cameroon, Ireland, West Germany of course…) whose fans remember the tournament fondly. In Romania’s case it is largely because it was their first for twenty years, and it came at the beginning of a new and optimistic era for the nation. Although it would be their first tournament as a post-communist state, the team actually qualified during the dictatorship. Those were interesting times. Here’s how it happened.
THE NATIONAL TEAM
Romania’s group contained two teams who had been at the 1986 World Cup, Bulgaria and Denmark. Yet, in the autumn of 1988, both squads were unrecognisable from those at Mexico: of the Danish Dynamite side only John Sivabaek, Ivan Nielsen and Michael Laudrup remained; young goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and wonderkid Brian Laudrup still had their best days ahead of them. Bulgaria were rebuilding too and, though the forward line of Lubo Penev and Hristo Stoichkov looked strong, the future USA ’94 heroes Lechkov, Kostadinov, Ivanov and Balakov were only beginning their international careers. Making up the numbers were outsiders Greece.
Romania’s team boasted a very experienced defence: captain Silviu Lung kept goal behind the likes of 1986 European Cup-winners Stefan Iovan and elegant libero Miodrag Belodedici, alongside Michael Klein and Ioan Andone, who had both played at Euro 84. Although midfield mainstay Ladislau Bölöni had just retired from the national team after winning over 100 caps, and gone to play in the West, Universitatea Craiova’s 21-year-old Gheorghe Popescu seemed a natural replacement. Also in midfield, the mercurial Gheorghe Hagi had been an automatic pick for several years but was still only 23 at the start of the campaign, while 24-year-old Marius Lăcătuș was a regular linking the play with veteran target man Rodion Cămătaru. Coach Emerich Jenei, who had led Steaua to European glory in 1986, had taken over from Mircea Lucescu later that summer. The team had then narrowly failed to make it to Euro 88 in West Germany, when Romania’s final-day 0-0 draw with Austria allowed Spain to take the qualification spot.
THE DOMESTIC SCENE
The qualification period, 1988-90, was an eventful time in Romanian football – even if domestic results were seldom surprising. The league and cup competitions had been increasingly engineered to be a two-horse race between Steaua and Dinamo, the teams of the Ministries of Defence and Interior respectively, from which virtually the entire national team was drawn. Steaua, incredibly, went undefeated in the league and cup for three entire seasons, from the cup final in June 1986 to September 1989. (On both occasions it was Dinamo who beat them.)
The Romanian Cup final of June 1988 had ended prematurely when, at 1-1 in the last minute, Steaua’s Gabi Balint had a goal disallowed for offside. The Steaua players left the pitch in protest, encouraged by club boss Valentin Ceaușescu, who also happened to be the eldest son of the dictator. The trophy was awarded to Steaua by the federation. (It was returned by the club in 1990.)
Then in the derby of March 1989 – with both teams unbeaten after 19 rounds, and Dinamo top on goal difference – the referee sent off two Dinamo players and Steaua won the game with a last-minute winner. At the end of the match Dinamo captain Andone went up to the stand where Valentin was sitting and made obscene gestures. The popular legend of the event tells that Andone dropped his shorts and waved his man parts, but thankfully the footage shows no such thing. The defender was initially going to be suspended for two years, but his friend Lăcătuș, also a friend of Valentin’s, managed to get the ban reduced to three months.
Steaua reached the European Cup final in May 1989, having been knocked out in the semis the previous year, but were thumped 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. Meanwhile across town, Dinamo had reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, and their striker Dorin Mateuț’s 43 league goals won him the European Golden Boot. (Incredible not least because he had only scored 44 in the past four years combined, and would never again hit double figures in a season.) Romanian football enjoyed as good a continental reputation as it had ever done.Embed from Getty Images
MEANWHILE, IN THE WORLD…
In the wider world, the summer saw Hungary start dismantling fences on the border with Austria, and the end of Communist government in Poland. Then in November the governments of East Germany and Czechoslovakia resigned. Some republics of the USSR were loosening the ties that bound them to Moscow.
Romania started their qualification campaign strongly, comfortably beating Bulgaria away and Greece at home in late 1988. Then, just before Christmas, Belodedici, an ethnic Serb and one of the linchpins of the side, snuck across the border from his hometown into Yugoslavia and defected. He received a prison sentence in absentia, for treason, and was not to be considered for national team selection. So, against Greece in Athens in April, Mircea Rednic deputised as sweeper, and Adrian Bumbescu replaced the suspended Andone. The injured Lăcătuș was also missing, but Ionuț Lupescu was brought in for his fourth cap to ensure that the team’s early-1970s haircut quota was fulfilled. Romania were unable to make their superiority count and the match finished goalless.
THE FINALE: FIRST LEG
It all comes down to a double-header: Romania, top of the group by one point, will play second-placed Denmark twice in the autumn of 1989. The Danes started the campaign badly by only drawing their first two games, against Greece and Bulgaria. Yet in Copenhagen in October they shackle Hagi and Popescu in midfield and win comprehensively, 3-0, against a Romanian side again lacking energy, creativity and (no coincidence) Lăcătuș. The team: Lung – Iovan, Rednic, Andone, Klein – Sabău, Popescu, Rotariu, Hagi, Mateuț – Cămătaru.
The public reaction back home is such that there are rumours that Ceausescu has threatened to disband Steaua and Dinamo if qualification is not achieved. Regime nerves are jangling: the Berlin Wall has come down. Coach Jenei’s job is certainly on the line. On the other hand, win bonuses have been doubled, and a video recorder may be on offer. However, Romania have only scored one goal in their last five matches – compared with Denmark’s fifteen – and things do not look good.
THE FINALE: SECOND LEG
The team for the return match at Steaua’s ground, Ghencea, on 15th November 1989, is completely different from the one that took the field in Denmark five weeks earlier. Lăcătuș is back in attack, the 21-year-old Popescu plays deeper in place of the suspended Rednic, Dinamo’s Dănuț Lupu comes in for Mateuț on the left, and Steaua’s Iosif Rotariu plays left-back in place of the more defensive-minded Klein. Injured target man Cămătaru is surprisingly replaced by Steaua midfielder Gabi Balint, who hasn’t played for Romania for two years, while young Dan Petrescu, also of Steaua, makes his first competitive appearance for his country at right back so that Iovan can cover in the centre of defence.
The team is: Lung (c) – Petrescu, Andone, Iovan, Rotariu – Sabău, Popescu, Lupu, Hagi – Lăcătuș, Balint.
The worst possible start. Brian Laudrup skips through the defence and makes a goal for Flemming Povlsen to give the Danes an early lead. But an attack-minded Romania side equalise after 25 minutes when a Lăcătuș cross from the left falls to Balint in the six yard box. Thirteen minutes later, Sabău’s industrious run and threaded pass through the middle creates a chance for Petrescu, whose shot is blocked but rebounds back to Sabău, who scores from just inside the area. Romania go into half-time 2-1 ahead. On the hour mark Balint takes advantage of a scramble in the area to add a third, to the crowd’s delight. Straight after the restart Hagi is sent off for a second yellow card (for kicking John Jensen), but his team-mates manage to defend their lead until the end and it finishes 3-1. Romania have secured a place at the World Cup for the first time since 1970. You can watch brief highlights of the match in glorious Technicolor (only really anthems and goals) here. Captain and coach dedicate the victory to the Fourth Congress of the Romanian Communist Party, and the team are invited to Valentin’s cellar bar Melody to celebrate.
A makeshift team turned out on the day more successful than the more experienced line-up had been in Copenhagen. Fresh young talent, aged 20 to 21, who would go on to make up the Generația de Aur (“golden generation”) of the 1990s, made their Romania debuts during 1988-89: Popescu, Sabău, Petrescu, Lupescu, Bogdan Stelea and Ilie Dumitrescu. Would the youngsters get their chance to shine in Italy the following summer?
On 9 December 1989, the draw was made for the World Cup finals. Romania found themselves in Group B with Euro 88 runners-up (and 1988 Olympic champions) the Soviet Union, reigning African champions Cameroon, and world champions Argentina. Blimey.
Also in December, protests in the western city of Timisoara started the ball rolling for the overthrow of Ceaușescu. On Christmas Day Nicolae and his wife Elena are executed and a supposed transition to democracy begins. Early in 1990 the National Salvation Front, set up by members of the ex-ruling party to oversee the transition to a democratic state, announces it will stand in the elections, having promised not to. Popular sentiment is sceptical.
Roll on 1990. Read on for part 2…