Full steam ahead to (another) derailment?

Chaos at Rapid. Please, let’s not go back to 2015-16.

Academia Rapid was a club formed in the summer of 2017 with the aim of adopting the identity of the defunct FC Rapid Bucureşti, which had been declared bankrupt a year earlier. The project was headed by Ovidiu Burcă, a defender who retired after a season with Rapid in 2012 and went on to become club president shortly before its demise. He was joined in this enterprise by two beloved and committed ex-rapidisti: Daniel Niculae as president and Daniel Pancu sporting director. Their former team-mate Constantin Schumacher was brought in as coach. All three had won league titles with Rapid as players, back in the glory days of the nineties and noughties. The mayor of the capital’s Sector 1, where the stadium is located, wanted to pump a third of a million euros of public funds into the new club’s budget: an enormous amount for the county-level fourth tier. Burcă was, however, keen to emphasise that in his eyes Romanian football’s biggest problem was not a lack of money but a lack of values.

(L to r) Schumacher, the mayor of Sector 1, Pancu, Niculae, Burca. [Source: sport.ro]
Pancu (then 40) and Niculae (34) were to combine their administrative duties with a playing role. They would be joined by several other professionals experienced at a higher level, many of whom also had some connection to the old Rapid. In a division full of football schools and superior pub teams who paid to play, Academia Rapid’s closest challengers for promotion were expected to be CSA Steaua. (This was another brand-new club, formed by the Ministry of Defence and designed to eventually supplant the country’s best-supported and most successful team, FCSB – known until recently as Steaua. Their budget (also from public money) stretched only to €150,000 or so.)

After some initial difficulty, most memorably a hard-fought draw at home with CSA Steaua, Academia Rapid went on to secure the divisional title after two further cherishable meetings with the new enemy, and – after a second play-off – promotion to the national Liga 3. During the winter break the club had secured the services of another legend, 37-year-old Vasile Maftei, stalwart of the 2003 title-winning Rapid side, who had captained unfashionable Liga 1 team Voluntari to victory in the Romanian Cup final just a few months earlier. Meanwhile, upstairs, Burcă was replaced as general manager by Nicolae “Nae” Stanciu, the man who played more top-flight matches for Rapid than anyone else in history. Academia Rapid now had five former club captains on board.

Perhaps most importantly, the fans came back. After a mostly terrible final year in Liga 1 (the top scorer was Cristi Săpunaru with 4 goals), attendances in the second tier in 2015-16 were low. The following season, the youthful squad of the new AFC Rapid played to even smaller crowds. But the presence of fan favourites right from the start of 2017-18 ensured lucrative turnstile takings. The second game against CSA Steaua drew not just the biggest crowd in Liga 4 history, but the biggest turn-out of any match in Romania that season: 36,277 (more people than those who saw FCSB beat Lazio). The second leg of the promotion play-off, which doubled as the club’s 95th birthday party, saw a near-capacity crowd in the atmospherically decaying, 70-year-old Giuleşti stadium. The season was rounded off with victory in the final of the Romanian Cup, Bucharest edition, again beating CSA Steaua.

Tifo from match v CSA, celebrating Rapid’s contemporary heroes. Includes Schumacher, Pancu, Niculae and Maftei.

In thirty-eight competitive matches, Academia achieved thirty-six wins, two draws, and a goal difference of +190. Because of the aged Pancu’s injury niggles, the captaincy more often devolved onto the shoulders of Niculae; he took responsibility for leadership of the group and rose to the occasion when the team needed him. He finished as top scorer, with 42 goals in his 33 appearances. There were various long-running legal struggles in order to secure (a) registration to compete in national competitions, and (b) the right to use the name “Rapid”. However, these cases appeared settled by the end of the season: the purchase of the Rapid brand was agreed at a price of around €400,000 in June. Everything looked badge-kissingly rosy for a tilt at the third division.

But in the summer of 2018, cracks started to appear. I don’t mean the ones in the stadium walls: those are actually holding the stands in place. In mid-July Niculae – skipper, emblem, poster-boy – suddenly announced that he would not renew his playing contract. He explained that the way the club was being run was not consistent with the values he thought he had signed up to a year earlier, and that consequently he felt that he had been used. After all, it had been he and Pancu whose names and faces had attracted personnel and publicity, and conferred legitimacy on the project. It was reported that he and Pancu had a disagreement with Burcă over the botched attempts to conform to various regulations concerning player contracts and the registration of the club as a company, all part of a general lack of transparency. Burcă stated this summer that not one ban of public money had been spent on the Academia Rapid project and that the Sector 1 municipal council’s support for the club was merely moral, not financial. But it is evident that the mayor continues to wield power behind the scenes: Stanciu disappeared after only a few months and Burcă is back in post. Meanwhile yet another former club captain turned up, Adrian Iencsi accepting an offer to coach the youngsters. The fanbase was split, as cult hero Pancu declined to follow Nico and Nae out of the door, preferring to remain in post as sporting director.

Worse was to come.

Academia Rapid – now, thanks to the successful purchase of the rights, known as FC Rapid – had qualified for the national phase of the Romanian Cup by winning the Bucharest county competition. They progressed comfortably through the early rounds in August 2018, even overcoming second-division Daco-Getica Bucureşti, who had been in the top flight the previous season. Yet the big turning-point came in the much-anticipated fifth round, when the big beasts enter the draw. Rapid could have been pitted against a top Liga 1 team, but instead were drawn to face fellow third-division side Turris Oltul Turnu Măgurele. They lost, at home, in ignominious fashion, failing to create a decent chance all game. [My match report here!] This was the team’s first competitive defeat since its foundation in summer 2017.

After victory in the next game, coach Schumacher was fired. Captain Maftei immediately quit in protest at his friend’s treatment. Now Rapid were suddenly down to their last heavyweight – and so Pancu, arguably the rapidiest man in town but a novice coach with only a B-licence, was installed as Schumacher’s replacement.

Niculae and Maftei. [Source: 1923.ro]
The close-season recruitment strategy focused almost exclusively on experience: a giant Lithuanian international striker was hauled in and an ex-Rapid goalie was brought home, while a 22-year-old Brazilian called Robinho was signed amid fanfare, although he can’t play until January due to work permit issues. This has brought the team even further from the idea of the “academy”, which was a priority for Schumacher and Niculae but which it has now shed from its name. It’s a legitimate worry whether the focus on hiring grizzled old pros will deny opportunity to untested young players and thus jeopardise the future of the 14-month-old club. The fan favourites who pulled in the punters will no more take to the hallowed turf. How long will even the legendary “Pancone” last, in an unfamiliar job, with a weakened squad, where finishing anywhere lower than top of the table will be a failure?

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