90stalgia (part 3)

It’s 28 years ago to the day since Romania’s traumatic World Cup evening in Genoa. Here is part 3 of the story of their Italia ’90 experiences. Click here for part 1 or, alternatively, here for part 2.


…on Saturday 9th June in Bari, at 5pm, officially in front of 42,000 people (although it looks a lot less than that on the telly). It’s the second day of the competition, and Romania face 1988 European Championship finalists, the Soviet Union. The tournament’s only match so far has yielded the biggest shock in decades: defending champions Argentina, fully equipped with their top-of-the-range Diego Maradona, going down 1-0 to outsiders Cameroon.

Coached by the legendary Valery Lobanovsky, who is also in charge of Dynamo Kiev, the Soviet starting line-up boasts an average of 50 caps each. Seven of their players started the Euro 88 final. Romania, by contrast, start with three players who have fewer than five caps. Among these are 22-year-old Daniel Timofte and 21-year-old Ionuț Lupescu, who between them have to somehow make up for the absence of the suspended talisman Gheorghe Hagi in midfield. Coach Emerich Jenei is also short of a right-back, with both rising star Dan Petrescu and old hand Ştefan Iovan injured, so experienced centre-back Mircea Rednic fills in. The starting line-up is: Lung – Rednic, Andone, Popescu, Klein – Sabau, Rotariu, Lupescu, Timofte – Lacatus, Raducioiu.

Silviu Lung keeps the Romanians in the game in the first half, with some fine saves from the much-fancied Soviets – including Oleg Protasov, who will many years later coach an Astra side whose goal is kept by Lung’s son, Silviu Lung junior. Romania are mostly absent as an attacking force, although Ioan Ovidiu Sabău looks lively on the counter-attack. After 40 minutes the midfielder puts Marius Lăcătuș through into the area, and the mop-topped one beats highly-rated goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev at his near post with an explosive right-footed shot. One-nil.Embed from Getty Images

The second half is much more open, and both sides have chances. Gica Popescu wastes a good opportunity by hoying it over the bar. Lăcătuș needlessly gets himself booked by refusing to get ten yards from a Soviet free kick. Then, in the 54th minute, on yet another speedy counter-attack, the Uruguayan referee awards a penalty to Romania for a handball which occurs pretty clearly outside the area as Lăcătuș again heads for goal. “The Beast” himself blasts it past Dasaev again for two-nil. Sabău misses a chance of his own making, and suddenly it’s end-to-end stuff. Let’s yield to the temptation of a glib analogy and suggest that the newly democratic Romanians are playing with freedom and the odd bit of individual brilliance, while the USSR is represented by an ageing, slow side held back by its own unwieldiness. Anyway, although Lăcătuș should probably have a hat-trick, no further goal is mustered and the game finishes 2-0.

The Soviets have been hard done by with the penalty, but Romania have been the better team and, despite not having Hagi in a competitive fixture for the first time since 1984, are off to a winning start. Dan Petrescu is at the game in Bari. He tells journalists, “I paid 6,000 lei to come here on a plane full of revolutionaries. I’m disappointed that the federation didn’t have faith in me and name me in the squad. I could have played at the tournament.” Lobanovsky will drop Dasaev for the next match and the ’80s great will not play for his country again.


Five days afterwards, on 14 June, the next opponents are Cameroon, fresh from urinating in Argentina’s jacuzzi but depleted by the two red cards they received in that chaotic encounter. The Romanians are unchanged, except for the small matter of Hagi coming back after his suspension in place of Lupescu. Argentina have beaten the USSR 2-0 the previous evening, thanks to a salmonic leap, a terrible backpass, and this little trick from Maradona. The result effectively puts the Soviets out of the tournament.

It’s impossible to get a grip on a match from a ten-minute second-half highlight reel on YouTube. But here goes. The long throws of Lăcătuș are used as a weapon from the right, and Raducioiu comes close to tucking one away. Then, after a passage of play in which some low-precision tackling leaves half the midfield on the floor, a huge hoof from the Cameroon defence bounces awkwardly for Ioan Andone just outside his own penalty area. The substitute Roger Milla out-jumps him to win the ball, then, just about keeping his feet while Andone is in a heap, with his left foot strokes it past Lung. It is the 38-year-old’s first goal of a memorable Indian-summer World Cup career which will propel him, in the long term, to lifelong global fame and, in the short term, to a second African Footballer of the Year award later in the year (his first having come in 1976). These days he would be penalised for jumping into the defender, and the ball hits his arm on the way down too, but the world cannot begrudge him his moment: there he goes, off to the corner flag, where he wiggles his hips and charms the watching millions.

Popescu chasing Milla. [Source: sportingnews.com]
Romania camp out in the Cameroonian half for a while. Substitute Gabi Balint juggles the ball in the area but Lăcătuș’ flying header goes wide. With only five minutes to go, the Africans appear to be running the clock down from an attacking free-kick, but then Jean-Claude Pagal’s hopeful chip into the box is met by the energetic Milla, who loops around for the return ball, leaves Michael Klein and Andone for dead, and smashes it inside Lung’s near post with his right foot to seal the victory.

Hagi has long been off the field, replaced by the youngster Ilie Dumitrescu, and the yellow shirts seem uncertain of how they might go about scoring a goal. Then Dumitrescu’s low cross from the left into a crowded area is deflected into the six-yard box, where Balint stabs home to give his team a glimmer of hope. Lăcătuș gets tangled up with goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono while trying to retrieve the ball from the net to restart the game, and the Cameroonian defenders are outraged because Balint looked distinctly offside. Two minutes remain, and it is François Omam-Biyik who has the best and last chance to score, but he doesn’t. Nevertheless, Cameroon are through to the second round, and a chastened Romania will need to get something out of their final group game, with world champions Argentina, in Naples, at the home ground of “The Hagi of the Pampas”…


So far so good in Italy. Back at home, however, things are not going so smoothly. (The facts are not easy to come by, and ultimate responsibility for what happens is still not clear in 2018; my sources are the European Court of Human Rights and the excellent Bucharest In Your Pocket.) Peaceful, small-scale “anti-neo-communist” protests have continued in Bucharest’s Piața Universităţii (University Square). Many are on hunger strike. Protesters are opposed to the remnants of the old regime who engineered their election de jure to high office while de facto in charge of state institutions in May. They also demand to know the truth about what happened the previous December when Ceausescu was removed from power.

On 12 June the government decides that the protests should be broken up, by the concerted efforts of the security forces, and the square cleared. In the early hours of 13 June, the protesters are attacked and 263 people are arrested; they are held in an undisclosed location (which will later turn out to be a local barracks). More people come into the streets throughout the day in protest, and crowds gathered in various key places. Rocks and Molotov cocktails are thrown. At the Interior Ministry in Piața Victoriei in the early evening, snipers fire into a crowd of a few thousand to try to disperse the demonstration Over a thousand bullets are fired from the building. Altogether, five civilians are killed on 13 June.

Miners on the march, June 1990. [Source: stirileprotv.ro]
That night, thousands of miners, mostly from the Jiu Valley northwest of Bucharest, arrive by rail in the capital: regular trains have been cancelled in order to facilitate this mass mobilisation. The miners have been summoned by the government – at what level is not entirely clear even today, although many assume that president Iliescu was at least complicit – to help to restore order and to prevent what the rulers pretend is an attempted fascist coup d’etat; they are armed with, among other things, axes and metal cables. For two days the miners run riot around the city, threatening and attacking various people: demonstrators, of course, but also Roma, students, journalists, people with briefcases… The headquarters of the major resurrected pre-Communist political parties are ransacked. Suspicions will persist that the miners’ groups have been infiltrated by secret police agents. Iliescu thanks the miners personally. Officially, in this violent episode, the “Mineriad”, between 13 and 15 June, five people are killed and 469 hospitalised; victims’ groups, however, claim over 100 fatalities. Unidentified bodies have been unearthed.

Miners enforcing the government’s will, June 1990. [Source: playtech.ro]


A draw in Naples will see Romania through to the second round. The world champions need to win to ensure automatic qualification: for them a draw would mean an anxious wait to see if they are one of the four best third-placed teams. Lupescu comes back in to the midfield and Timofte sits this one out. Balint replaces Florin Răducioiu up front. On the field before kickoff Andone is the only player who sings along to ‘Deșteaptă-te, române!’ (“Wake up, Romanian!”), a nineteenth-century patriotic song which has been the national anthem for just a few months.

There is a wonderful passage of play about two minutes in (watch it here) when Hagi beats two men on the touchline, nutmegs a third with a pass, then Claudio Caniggia intercepts the move and sets off on a run. Maradona’s ball over the defence back to Caniggia is a thing of wonder. After four minutes Maradona makes the most of a careless foul by Lăcătuș and the Beast gets his second booking of the tournament, putting him out of the second round – if Romania make it.

The play is noticeably harder than in the football of the 2010s. When an Argentine player stays down after a tough tackle, his team-mates simply play on around him, with no thought of kicking the ball into touch. Then Lăcătuș clobbers the goalkeeper Sergio Goycoechea in the chest with a high boot, in a 30/70 contest in the penalty box; nobody looks outraged, although a free-kick is given. Throughout the first half Popescu has a few surges forward from midfield. Hagi shoots on sight from all over the pitch: I think he’s getting in sighters for 1994.

Maradona has been somewhat smothered by the attentions of Iosif Rotariu. “The night before the match, Emerich Jenei asked me if I could mark Maradona. I said yes, because I was ashamed to say no. I didn’t sleep all night,” the Romanian will recall years later. The short and curly, undeniably ballsy and cocky Argentina captain at one point takes a blow to the unmentionables from his marker. José Serrizuela strikes the resultant free kick  straight into the wall, where Lăcătuș plays a short pass to Hagi close to the left touchline; Hagi’s chip finds Balint in space; Balint’s long-range outside-of-the-boot pass swings out to that man Lăcătuș running towards the right-hand corner of the box. One touch to control the ball and one to belt it at the goal; Goycoechea saves high to his left. As the ball goes out for a corner, just thirteen seconds have passed since Lăcătuș and Balint formed a two-man wall 25 metres from their own goal.

rotariu maradona
Rotariu and Sabau double-team El Diego. [Source: can’t remember]
At half time in Bari, Cameroon (already through) are losing 2-0 to the USSR: if the Soviets win by enough goals, they could finish above the losing side in this match and be in with a (slim) chance of going through as one of the best third-place teams, while the winner in Naples would finish top of the group.

Ten minutes into the second half, Balint’s header flashes high and wide. But at a 63rd-minute corner Popescu is beaten to the ball by Pedro Monzón in the air and all of a sudden it’s one-nil. Not long after, with Goycoechea awol, Andone somehow misses the gaping target with a header from a corner won by Hagi’s trickery. As it stands, Romania are probably going home.

Then in the 68th minute, salvation arrives. Hagi and Lupescu combine on the right; Lăcătuș’ terrific cross is headed into the middle by Sabău (or possibly Klein – if the Romanian commentator can’t work it out, I’ve got no chance) at the far post, and Balint is in the six yard box and his looping header clears the defender and the ball sails into the net. At this point the commentator endearingly sheds any pretence of neutrality, repeating “Hai, băieţii!” (“Come on, boys!”) and yelling at the linesman for a bad offside call. At this point, Romania would progress in second place on goals scored, while the world champions would have to wait in agony for 72 hours until the group fixtures are completed. Of course the Romanians know that, even though Argentina have struggled to create chances all tournament, one moment of Maradona magic would do for them.

Time travel. [Source: evz.ro]
Here’s Lung, thwarting El Diego’s attempt to convert Caniggia’s cross in the goalmouth. There’s Hagi putting in a defensive shift, dispossessing Caniggia and calmly playing it out short. Balint comes off with a thigh injury, replaced by Dănuț Lupu. Caniggia optimistically requests a penalty with an unconvincing roll around. Romania’s attacks slow to walking pace, and a couple of heavy falls by Klein and Lung eat up the minutes. When the final whistle blows, the Romanian contingent in the crowd joyfully wave their flags (with the central Communist emblem cut out, as has been customary since the revolution). The stats show that Lung did not have a single save to make. Romania are through!



25 June, 5pm, Genoa. Second round match. Romania’s opponents, the Republic of Ireland, are in their first ever World Cup finals, and have made it through the group stage by drawing all three matches. Although this is a fantastic achievement by a limited group of players, the team’s style, implemented by ultra-pragmatic English angler Jack Charlton, has attracted criticism from some quarters back home. Both of their goals so far, one each against England and Holland, have come from goalkeeper Pat Bonner’s enormous punts downfield. Romania are without their best attacking player, the suspended Lăcătuș. The full line-up is: Lung – Rednic, Andone, Popescu, Klein – Sabau, Rotariu, Lupescu, Hagi – Răducioiu, Balint.

Embed from Getty ImagesIt’s a hot evening and Romania make all the play early on. The Irish are struggling to keep up. Bonner saves a long-range Balint effort. Sheedy can’t quite direct a Tony Cascarino knock-down towards goal. In the second half, Hagi creates a shooting chance for himself with a dribble from the right touchline: his left-foot shot brings a terrific flying save from Bonner. The ineffectual Răducioiu comes off for midfielder Lupu. It doesn’t feel like the Romanians’ day. A low shot, with Hagi’s right this time, bobbles in front of Bonner but the keeper parries it nonetheless.

And that’s pretty much it. An uneventful match will be decided on penalties. Which is just as well because, while the YouTube highlights of the rest of the game are pretty sparse, the shootout is on there plenty of times.

Jack Charlton will recall later: “I went across to the lads … I said, make your mind up what you’re gonna do, and do it. Don’t change your mind.” Even though he’s given up smoking, Big Jack cadges a cigarette off a nearby supporter before the shootout (“Gizza tab”). Bonner walks to the goalmouth to receive the first Romanian penalty kick. Hagi gives the Irishman no chance. Kevin Sheedy, Lupu, Ray Houghton and Rotariu all blast their kicks perfectly out of reach of the opposing goalkeepers. Andy Townsend drills his firm and low while Lung dives the wrong way. Three-three. Lupescu’s effort is down the middle and Bonner almost keeps it out: he is furious with himself. Then Lung gets his hand to Tony Cascarino’s shot but the power carries it into the goal and it’s the moustachioed Romanian’s turn to get cross.


Up steps substitute Timofte, who replaced Sabău during extra time. “I wanted to hit it right down the middle like I always did with penalties,” the midfielder many years later tells Bonner, “but a teammate told me that you were having trouble diving, that you stay in the centre of the goals and he changed my mind. It was a big mistake.” Timofte strikes the ball weakly to Bonner’s right, the keeper guesses correctly and comfortably gets both hands to it to push it away. If Ireland score their next penalty, Romania are going home.

bonner blurry
One of the greatest moments in Irish sporting history: let’s leave it blurry, thanks. [Source: INPHO/Billy Strickland]
“I couldn’t believe it when David O’Leary went to take the penalty,” Charlton will admit afterwards. The veteran full-back, making his World Cup debut as an extra-time substitute for Steve Staunton, is known neither for his dead-ball skills nor for his shooting. Two nations hold their breath. But the Irishman keeps his head. Lung dives right; O’Leary calmly strokes the ball high to Lung’s left. The men in green go nuts.

Packie Bonner, who played 641 times for Celtic and won 80 caps, will later say “that one save changed my life forever”. The shy, big-handed man from Donegal also believes that the team’s progress at the World Cup brought the nation together: “I really believe that seeing us out there in Italy, taking on the world, fighting our corner against the very best, changed the mindset of the nation.” Striker Niall Quinn will describe the match as “the best game I ever played in […] in terms of the adrenaline and the emotion”. The moment lives on in Irish popular memory: it features in Roddy Doyle’s novel The Van, and you can watch the penalty shootout scene from the movie adaptation here. As O’Leary will say in one of his many interviews about the event, “Wherever I go […] people still come up and say, ‘great penalty’. Thank God I didn’t miss it. I don’t know what would have happened then.”

Daniel Timofte will never be allowed to forget that day. After a reasonably successful, though injury-hit, career, he will eventually open a bar called Penalty in his home town Petroșani to show how totally over it he is. “I never talk about it. I have never watched the footage of the penalty,” he will say in a fascinating but rather melancholy interview with an Irish newspaper in 2015.


At the team’s base in Telese Terme, north of Naples, a swarm of agents and representatives surround the players, who, due to stringent regulation of movement, were unavailable for purchase under the old regime. Older players have occasionally been permitted to play in the West: Rodion Cămătaru, aged 31 and in the current squad, plays for Charleroi in Belgium, while Ladislau Bölöni moved to France aged 34. Others, like Miodrag Belodedici, Viorel Năstase or the unfortunate Dan Coe, had defected. Now Hagi may have already signed for Real Madrid, but all these other young men in their prime are up for sale.

Gică Popescu, only 22 at the time, will later describe the scenes at Telese Terme as “a bazaar of players”. “I was relying on Hagi. I was asking him, ‘What else should I ask for? Plane tickets?’ I didn’t know anything about the market and I had no-one to consult. […] The only salary we knew was Maradona’s – we’d heard from someone that he was getting over a million dollars a season.”

Popescu turns down an offer to join Hagi at Madrid and instead accepts a contract worth half a million dollars a year at PSV Eindhoven. During the summer most of the squad will secure the moves abroad they have been denied all this time. Sabău joins Feyenoord; Lăcătuș plumps for Fiorentina, Răducioiu for Bari. Rotariu and Rednic go to Turkey; Lupescu and Klein to Germany; Lupu to Greece; Balint, Andone and Lung all head for minor Spanish teams. Most of these transfers are facilitated by one Dan Alban, whose sterling (and possibly slightly shady) work will be continued after his death in 1991 by his young associate Ioan “Giovanni” Becali. Ioan and his brother Victor will dominate the football agent market in Romania for many years. Both Becalis will also later serve prison sentences for corruption-related offences, as will their cousin George “Gigi” Becali, who bought Steaua in the early 2000s.

The tide of transfers abroad would be even greater, but the federation imposes limits: the player has to be over 28, or to have more than 40 caps, or to have put in extraordinary performances for the national team. Ilie Dumitrescu, 22, will stay at Steaua for a few more years, on an annual salary of $10,000: he will make it big in… well, that’s another story.

The day after defeat by Ireland, the players head back to Bucharest – except Hagi, who travels straight to Madrid, and Jenei, who chaperones him. The others, ink still drying on their contracts, will need to get home to pack. Preparing to leave the turmoil back home, Romania’s “golden generation” is only beginning its great adventure…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s