I have been in Romania a fraction over four years. In that time I have had the (often dubious) pleasure of watching my adopted team, Rapid Bucharest, compete in the first, second, fifth and fourth divisions, in that order. (This encompasses three different entities, trading under three slightly different names, but no need to over-complicate at this stage, eh?)
Yesterday I completed the set, with my (and their) first Liga 3 game. Since Rapid’s last appearance in European competition, an aggregate defeat to Heerenveen six years ago*, the club has: been relegated to Liga 2 twice – once for failings on the pitch and once for off – spent almost four years insolvent, won promotion to Liga 1 twice, been wound up, been restarted in the county leagues as (to date) four separate entities, and won promotion from both the fifth and fourth divisions. The life of today’s Rapid fan has not been easy, but neither has it been boring.
Date: Saturday 25th August, 2018.
Venue: the Valentin Stănescu Stadium, Giuleşti, Bucharest
Competition: Liga 3, Series 2, round one
Opposition: AFC Progresul 1944 Spartac
Ticket price: 10 lei (€2) for Tribuna II
This summer, the buzz around the decrepit Valentin Stănescu Stadium in Bucharest’s scruffy Giuleşti neighbourhood has been centred on one man. Or, rather, his absence.
Daniel Niculae led Academia Rapid to the Bucharest Liga 4 title last season, as captain and top scorer of a team that registered 154 goals in its 28 matches during the regular season. They lost one game, only through fielding an ineligible player. The 35-year-old former Romanian international was also a founding president of the club when it was inaugurated in summer 2017. His on-field leadership and performances, especially in the second half of the season, ensured that Academia eventually overcame the strong challenge of CSA Steaua in some pretty tense encounters.
Now “Nico”, beloved by the Rapid faithful for his part in the glory days of the early 2000s, has quit. The lanky lad who came through the ranks to win a league title and two cups with Rapid, played 39 times for Romania, and came back to Giuleşti to head up the new Academia project last summer alongside fellow cult hero Daniel Pancu, has had enough of being sidelined by backroom shenanigans and apparently shady financial decision-making. Coming on the back of a very enjoyable and romantic season for everyone, this leaves the team in a difficult place and the fans in a quandary.
However, there has been some good news too: after a few months in which the club was forced to officially call itself “Fotbal Club R București”, the football federation has decided that Academia Rapid, having bought the rights, is now entitled to be known as FC Rapid. This may well sound the death knell** for rival contenders for the name, AFC Rapid, already struggling without fans or money in Liga 4.
Today’s opponents are no strangers to name-based controversy. Progresul 1944 Spartac was founded in 2014 and is no relation to Progresul, the club of the Romanian national bank, which enjoyed success in the 1990s and 2000s before financial problems and a dispute with the local FA led to withdrawal from the Bucharest leagues a year ago. Progresul 1944 Spartac have been in Liga 3 for just one season, in which they took the promotion battle right to the wire, only losing out to SSC Farul Constanţa in the final round of fixtures. So they are no mugs.
They even have fans! I’ve just bought my ticket when up the street comes a group of about forty men in blue, waving flags and chanting “Progresul, Progresul”. A gendarme approaches and has a quiet word, then escorts the gang into the ground. I’m early, but there soon must be getting on for a Boothferry Park’s worth inside. The peluza is making all the noise, piping up again with their drum every time the away fans start to be heard. The sun sets behind the tower blocks and we’re underway. It quickly becomes clear that, although the home team look slightly superior, they are missing the spark provided by Niculae. No. 11 looks to run and create space, but is easily tempted to try to dribble through the entire opposition team and usually loses the ball or misplaces his pass. The full-backs are involved in attack, but either the cross is inaccurate or the forwards are in the wrong positions to meet it.
In the absence of Niculae and Pancu (who is recovering from a foot operation), the Rapid captain is the vastly experienced Vasile Maftei in central defence. Maftei is a stocky fellow, handsomely bearded, of thirty-seven summers. He runs like a man with severe ankle pain, and whenever he plays a pass of more than twenty metres he winds up extravagantly beforehand at half-speed. But he was part of Rapid’s 2003 title-winning team, and was appointed club captain the following year. He later skippered Unirea Urziceni, Concordia Chiajna and Voluntari in his fourteen seasons as a regular starter in Liga 1. Clearly a decent choice as captain. He is short for a centre-half, under six feet, and has a tendency to appear rather casual. If he still had any pace he could play in midfield, since his passing is miles better than any of his colleagues’. But his team will need him in defence. Close to half-time the Rapid no. 4, having a bit of a nightmare, considering the paucity of Progresul’s attacking threat, gives the ball away softly when his keeper is off his line. Little Donca’s audacious lob is so well-placed that goalie Ciuculescu can only leap into the top corner himself: the ball bounces off the woodwork and then into the goal off his back.
One-nil to the visitors – all the more surprising because they are already a man down. I am not often impressed with Romanian referees, who tend to be whistle-happy as a rule, but tonight’s official has played a central part in rendering the match virtually unwatchable. From the beginning he’s whipped out his yellow card like a man with a quota to get through. Late tackles are, it’s true, being flown in – but it’s the first few minutes of the season, these guys are semi-pro and hardly at their physical peak. And the card-waving only has the effect of encouraging dives, my bête noire. Donca himself has been an egregious culprit. Rapid’s physio is beckoned on so frequently that he must be regretting the extra beers and mici he tucked away over the summer barbecue season.
One of Progresul’s attackers is unfortunate enough to receive a second yellow when he carries on playing after an offside call against him and puts the ball in the net. He can’t quite believe he’s got his marching orders for such an innocuous offence, and it seems that the referee realises the need to calm down a bit from this point, in order to avoid running out of players before the hour mark. Yet, after taking the lead, the visitors persist with the tumbles and time-wasting tactics, further riling the crowd, the irascible Maftei and his coach Schumacher.
A few half-hearted boos are countered with some similarly vigourless applause as the half is brought to an end. Surely the home team just need to keep applying the pressure and their extra man will tell. They can’t keep being so useless up front. Can they?
Throughout the second half, the frustration builds. On the field and in the stands. Physios and stretchers continue to make a more meaningful impact on the game than Rapid’s midfield. The strikers continue to make all the wrong decisions. The defenders still look shaky. Then the club’s big new signing is wheeled off the bench. Deivydas Matulevičius played for Lithuania against England last October. He spent four seasons in Liga 1 with Pandurii and Botoșani. And now he is a sub for this third-division outfit. He’s big. He’s only 29. He has blond hair, floppy on top but closely-shaven at the sides, which (a) is objectively an awful look, and (b) makes him look like central casting’s stereotypical evil north-eastern European. His touch doesn’t look amazing, to be honest, but he does cause a bit of chaos in the Progresul defence, which had previously remained sanguine in the face of Rapid’s forward pairing of Vlada and Jurj.
Just as I was contemplating defeat – something I have not witnessed since my very first Rapid game, in Liga 1, against Dinamo, in 2014 – a big deflection off a defender’s boot gives Matulevičius a goal on debut! It’s all square! With ten minutes to play!
In injury time, the Lithuanian, out of patience with the service, goes out wide to fetch the ball himself. His square ball is deflected into the path of Amir Jorza, who, with no time or space, places the ball expertly low in the far corner. The relief, even elation, on the faces of everyone in the stand makes all the earlier angst and suffering worthwhile.
And that, folks, is football.
Filing out, past the swimming pool, which is coming on nicely, and the derelict turnstiles, which are still decaying atmospherically, who should emerge from the stadium side door but Daniel Nicolae himself. So the reports of him cutting ties with the club are not true. Perhaps he has even patched things up with Pancu. Perhaps he will come back and play one day. If nothing else, the past year of Rapid fandom has taught me to dream…
*in August 2012
**Is there any other kind of knell?