Football famine finally finishes!

Ahh, football, you’re back. We missed you.

Or not really. The day before Croatia took on France at the Luzhniki in Moscow, the more modest (though spectacular and new and lovely-looking) Ion Oblemenco Stadium in Craiova saw league champions CFR Cluj defeat cup winners Universitatea Craiova in the Supercupa, the curtain-raiser for the new Romanian season. The only goal was scored from the penalty spot by former Flandia, Almagro, Independiente, Racing Club, La Serena, Galatasaray, Orduspor, Mersin İdmanyurduDeportivo La Coruña, Al Wasl, Las Palmas, Zaragoza and Mallorca midfielder Juan Emmanuel Culio, now in his second spell at CFR.

Even before that encounter, however, the early rounds of the Europa League had got underway. Gheorghe Hagi‘s Viitorul – who had played six matches in European competition in their short history, without a single win and losing 16-2 on combined aggregate – achieved the impossible! The 2017 Romanian champions proved just too strong for the seventh-best team in Luxembourg, Racing FC, and, in spite of a goalless draw in the home leg at Ovidiu, progressed to the second preliminary round. Romanian football was gloriously reborn, thanks to the King! Then Vitesse Arnhem of the Netherlands put Hagi’s kids back in their place in the next round, knocking them out 5-3 on aggregate.

CFR Cluj, Romania’s sole representatives in the Champions League, ensured more misery for the country’s coefficient* by tumbling out at the earliest opportunity against Swedish champions Malmö. Between the first and second legs of the tie, brand-new coach Edi Iordănescu was fired, after one win (the Supercup final) in his three games. Portuguese journeyman manager Toni Conceição, who has coached CFR briefly twice before, will have a bash for a bit, and the reputation of Dan Petrescu, who led this team to the Liga 1 title just two months ago before choosing all the riches of Xanadu the challenge of Guizhou Hengfeng, will doubtless grow in his absence.

Liga 1 kicked into action on 20th July, the highlight being an away win for Dunărea Călărași in their first ever top-flight match, against Viitorul. Ianis Hagi missed a penalty for the home team. (Incidentally, his dad, 53,  is now the oldest and most experienced coach in the entire division.)

Last year’s runners-up FCSB also lost their first game, 1-0 at Astra Giurgiu, which is once again home to striker Denis Alibec. After he managed only one league goal at FCSB last season amid nuff trouble over his fitness, attitude and personal proclivities, owner Gigi Becali decided to offload the mardy ex-star, at a loss, back to the club where he looked the real deal a couple of years ago. The coach who worked with big Denis to bring Astra an unexpected league title in 2016 is long since departed, however: after a strange season at Kayserispor in Turkey, which ended prematurely with the sack, Marius Șumudică is now in charge at Al-Shabab in Riyadh. Șumi wasted no time in directing Saudi money towards Becali by buying from him another former member of the champion Astra team, playmaker Constantin Budescu, for €2.5 million. In Saudi, Budescu, one of FCSB’s best players last season and Romanian footballer of the year 2017, will earn a million euros a year, four times his wage at Romania’s richest club.

Bucharest’s exciting ‘Eternal Derby’, in the second round of fixtures, finished 3-3, a late equaliser rescuing a point for an underpowered Dinamo. Commentators bemoaned the standard of defending by both teams. FCSB eventually secured an easy first league win of the season in their third game, 4-0 against Poli Iași, much as they swatted aside the Slovenians of Rudar Velenje in their Europa League tie, 6-0 on aggregate. Promising young players have impressed so far, such as Florinel Coman, Dennis Man and new acquisition Olimpiu Moruțan. In the third preliminary round, later this week, the Bucharest club must face Hajduk Split; elsewhere, U Craiova will have their work cut out against RB Leipzig, but CFR Cluj can look forward to Armenia’s Alashkert. Sparta Prague, with four high-profile Romanians on their books, tumbled out of the Europa League against unfancied Spartak Subotica from Serbia.

Last year’s streaky Liga 1 survivors, Voluntari, unsurprisingly parted company with coach Adrian Mutu in June, after the team’s poor performances under him caused an uncomfortably close brush with demotion. His replacement is the 36-year-old Daniel Oprița, whose last top-flight position ended with him being locked out of the Juventus București ground early last season, a subtle hint of his imminent dismissal.

Liga 2

The aforementioned Juventus have this summer been forced, by idiotic litigation from Turin, to change their name. Even though the club has existed in its current form for a quarter of a century and was named after a prominent pre-war club (see my potted history here!), it seems that one season in the top flight brought too much attention for the Italians’ comfort. The new name, chosen by the club’s unashamedly nationalistic owner, is Daco-Getica București: a reference, meaningless to pretty much everyone outside Romania, to some pre-Roman inhabitants of the region whom some believe to have been a kind of proto-Romanian people. The name sits nicely with a reputation for nationalistic chants and anti-Hungarian songs, for which the club, its executive director and stadium announcer were fined after a match last season against Sepsi. (Against the same opponents the season before, something similar occurred: read about it in my “I was there” report if you’re so inclined.)

After a dreadful season on the pitch, Daco-Getica will play this year in Liga 2, which got underway last weekend. The division’s line-up looks tastier than ever. The quotient of fanless, mayoral-vanity-project village teams is happily reduced, and well-supported, reborn clubs Petrolul Ploiești, Farul Constanța and Universitatea Cluj have all come up from the third tier. They join established and (potentially) popular opponents such as UTA AradArgeș Pitești and Ripensia Timișoara, plus two Poli Timișoaras, one of which is in dispute with the authorities about use of the municipal stadium facilities. Furthermore, the big provincial towns of Bacău and Petroșani, with a strong football tradition, again have football of consequence happening in them, thanks to newly-promoted – and excitingly-named – Aerostar and Energeticianul.

The well-backed Petrolul are very likely to be in the mix for promotion, while Chindia Târgoviște, who finished third last time, will be going for it again. They are now coached by legendary striker Viorel Moldovan – though it has to be said that the names on his CV (Vaslui, Rapid, Auxerre, Romania U21) look much more impressive than the results he has achieved as a manager. Down the other end, Metaloglobus received a last-minute reprieve from descent to Liga 3, thanks to the withdrawal of last year’s worst-supported club, Afumaţi (average home attendance: 99). You can read about the day the Metal Globes got relegated in my match report here, if you like.

Because I find Liga 2 more interesting than the top flight – and you should too – here is some more fascinating information. This season’s Liga 2 TV rights are worth €500,000.

In total.

That’s right. Each club will get €10,000 in September, another €10,000 in February, and then, just to tide them over for the summer, €5,000 in June. But that’s not all: there is a bonus from the league’s sponsor, a betting company, worth another €10,000. I am not missing out zeros. Think on.

Doldrum News

Down in the lower leagues, the club purporting to be Rapid Bucharest, which won promotion to Liga 3 in its first season of existence, under the name of Academia Rapid, will play next term as FC R București. No longer can the fans laugh at the misfortune of their Steaua counterparts having to get behind a team (FCSB) whose name is just initials. Various legal machinations have gone on throughout the past year to enable ‘Rapid’ both to secure the name and badge of the old entity, and also to compete in national competitions, i.e. the third tier and the Romanian Cup. The sources of the club’s funding, which dwarfed the outlay of rivals last season and enabled the recruitment of stars who were until recently playing in Liga 1, remain unclear: despite the unveiling of a young millionaire as the major stooge shareholder, suspicions persist about shady political figures. Sensible people on the Sector 1 council blocked the mayor’s attempts to use taxpayers’ money to fund the club last summer. Since the winter break, the nation’s favourite convicted election-rigger, ruling party boss Liviu Dragnea – ultimate cause of massive popular demonstrations that brought the country to a standstill the winter before last – has been rumoured to be involved behind the scenes.

echipa-home-mic.jpg
Daniel Niculae (in front) with the squad in happier times. [Source: academiarapid.ro]
All of which makes many supporters of Rapid, associated (in their own minds, at least) with anti-government resistance during the Communist era, feel uneasy. Last month Daniel Niculae – captain, top goalscorer, legend, executive president of the club – resigned with immediate effect. The 35-year-old, who had been along with Daniel Pancu the initial driving force behind the venture, and trusted by apprehensive fans, was not happy with the lack of transparency in the running of the club, having been kept in the dark on various issues. It seems that Niculae’s fifteen-year friendship with Pancu has sadly come to an end as a result. The on-field appearances of the pair – who won trophies with the old Rapid in the ’90s and early 2000s – were the reason for many rapidiști, including Romaniaballs, to return to Giulești to watch non-league football last season; while the football was usually hopelessly one-sided, seeing the bond between players and fans has often been the biggest attraction. The Liga 3 season will begin at the end of August.

*Romania currently lie 29th in the UEFA coefficient – below Israel, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, etc. etc.

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