I’m sorry I haven’t a cluj

As September begins, we can proudly report that Romanian football teams remain in UEFA competitions!

Informatica Timișoara are going great guns in the UEFA Futsal Cup, beating Lynx of Gibraltar 6-0 last week. Buzău Region is hanging in there in the UEFA Regions’ Cup, contested by amateur footballers; they’ll face Munster/Ulster later this month. And in the UEFA Youth League, for under-19s, Viitorul are still in contention – mind you, the tournament doesn’t actually start until October.

So there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful: it’s just that the senior football is, as so often, not one of them. Last week in the capital, FCSB could not overcome a 3-1 first leg deficit against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League, though they did come fairly close. Two-nil ahead in the second half, a mistake from teenage goalkeeper Andrei Vlad led to an excruciating own goal by Balaşa, and the Austrians went through.

Meanwhile, Romania’s other remaining representative, CFR Cluj, had not one but two of the most calamitous European nights in the country’s history. Their opponents, F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, had knocked out Polish champions Legia Warsaw in the previous round and were therefore not to be misunderestimated. However, that’s exactly what CFR appeared to do, and in the first leg the Luxembourgers deservedly prevailed 2-0 over a sorry excuse for the reigning champions of Romania.

Post-match newspaper polls asked about where this defeat ranked in the hall of ignominy. (The mighty 1980s-vintage Dinamo losing to 17. Nentori Tirana? A weaker Dinamo crumbling against Arsenal’s next opponents Vorskla Poltava, in 2011? Maccabi Haifa tonking Steaua five-nil in the same year?)

But worse was to come.

The clujenii were adamant that the semi-professional side from this tiny banking duchy would not be able to cope with an intimidating eastern European atmosphere. (Never mind that they had already been to the Polish Army Stadium and won in front of ten thousand people.) So the club offered tickets for 5 lei (about a pound, or a euro and a bit), with kids and students getting in free. The coach rested several players for the weekend league game at Gaz Metan Mediaş in preparation for a full assault on qualifying for the Europa League group stage the following midweek.

Two exotic new recruits made their debuts for the club against Gaz Metan: Spanish goalkeeper Jesús Fernández started; and former Sevilla, Real Madrid, Arsenal and Roma attacker, the Brazilian Julio Baptista, now 36, came on for the last twenty minutes. The match finished goalless.

Ex-Real Madrid B man Jesús kept his place for the Dudelange second leg, but denied journalists the opportunity to write a “Jesús saves” headline*: after another catastrophically awful showing, CFR were 5-0 down on aggregate with five minutes left to play! Two late goals made the scoreline of the match look less horrific, but it could not hide the spectacular badness of the Cluj team over the two legs, against a team they had been expected to beat easily. “Amateurism without bounds”, tutted Gazeta Sporturilor, and they weren’t talking about Dudelange’s part-timers. Julio Baptista came on in the second half but did not score. The official attendance at the Dr. Constantin Rădulescu stadium was around 12,000 – a little over half full. Clearly not sufficiently intimidating.

CFR are now in a bit of a mess. After Dan Petrescu unexpectedly brought them the league title, then jumped ship to China, new coach Edi Iordănescu (son of the great Anghel) oversaw victory in the Super Cup and was then booted out having been in charge for only six weeks, mostly in the close season. His replacement Toni Conceição, in his third spell at the club, eked out three wins on the trot in the league, but looks to be on the way out after this embarrassing episode, which was followed by defeat at home to Viitorul last weekend, allowing FCSB to take top spot in Liga 1. Next match: away at FCSB.

Over the past few days, rumours have spread that the CFR hierarchy has panicked about the size of Julio Baptista’s contract and wants to offload him, having only signed him on 18th August. The official denial on the club website reaffirms the season’s aim: to retain the championship. In the current turmoil, this seems more admirable than realistic; whoever takes over from Toni, don’t bet on him surviving until June.

This all makes a pleasant change from the constant media focus on FCSB: even when they’re losing, the country’s richest and best-supported club get all the attention. Perhaps this is a deliberate strategy by CFR’s owners: meltdown and humiliation in the name of brand growth. Stranger things have happened in Romanian football…

*or even “Jesús saves; but Turpel nets the rebound”

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