The magic of the cup, eh? Last midweek saw 16 teams face off to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Cupa României, and it was rather a mixed bag of weirdness. Although Rapid’s interest in the competition was extinguished in the last round, I’ll be keeping an eye on the next one. Here’s why:
In this tournament the game is always played at the ground of the team that finished lower the previous season; this is supposed to give the minnows a better chance of getting through. Two teams from the regionalised third tier were in the draw: Turris Turnu Măgurele, conquerors of Rapid, from close to the Bulgarian border, and FK Csíkszereda, a club from the Székely Land (a majority-Hungarian region of Transylvania which was represented at the Conifa Football World Cup this summer).
The first six matches of the round, on Tuesday and Wednesday, saw five away wins, the exception being a comfortable home victory in Sibiu for Hermannstadt over Voluntari, who are, in any case, currently below them in Liga 1. Two other all-top-flight ties were much closer: champions CFR Cluj snuck past Gaz Metan Mediaș by the only goal of the game, while Poli Iași came back from two-nil down to force penalties against Gheorghe Hagi’s Viitorul. Hagi’s son and Viitorul club captain Ianis, who has an unusual, dead-straight run-up, scored a penalty in the first half with his right, and then with his left helped to seal a win for his team in the shootout.
Second division Universitatea Cluj were 3-0 ahead after eight minutes, but their visitors Astra Giurgiu overturned the deficit with the help of two own goals by U, including one in extra time which proved the winner for Astra. Two curiosities: firstly, Astra’s owner, and formerly Romania’s richest man, Ioan Niculae was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for corruption offences the very next day. More oddly, Astra (in red) had the chance to score a breakaway fifth goal in extra-time injury-time, but then this happened.
Turris took the lead against U Craiova, but the team lying in third place in the top division smacked the minnows down with four second-half goals to secure a quarter-final spot. Sepsi OSK thrashed second-tier Mioveni by five goals to none.
Then on Thursday into the fray waded Dinamo and FCSB, Romania’s two biggest clubs by far and the capital’s only remaining representatives in the competition. Dunărea Călărași, last year’s Liga 2 champions, are having their best ever season, currently in mid-table in their first-ever top flight campaign. But it was about to get even better for Dan Alexa’s boys: a packed Ion Comșa stadium would see Dunărea score two headed goals from corners to beat a young, second-string FCSB side 2-1.
Dinamo, meanwhile, are having their worst season since… well, since the last really bad one. Although they haven’t finished in the top two for over a decade, eighteen league championships and thirteen Romanian Cups weigh heavy on each generation and the team are expected to be challenging their bitter rivals FCSB for honours. Last year they failed even to make the cut for the play-off, and ended up seventh. They have not finished lower than that since 1960, but things are looking bleak right now. After a bad start to the season, coach Florin Bratu was sacked in late September. His replacement Claudiu Niculescu lasted three weeks. For some reason club legend Mircea Rednic, who won league titles with Dinamo as both player and manager, agreed to take over, but things have not yet improved. They haven’t won in the league since August** and are what the football journalists’ union dictates must be referred to as “languishing” third from bottom. Talk of a players’ mutiny* has been rife*.
The club is in dire financial straits. The owner wants to sell; has done for years. The management had a big bust-up in September, leading to Ionel Danciulescu, beloved striker turned general director of the club, being dismissed and even banned from the Ştefan cel Mare stadium. Chaos reigns.
Meanwhile, in the Székely Land, four hours’ drive north of the capital, FK Csíkszereda is a club used to winning. They have, incredibly, lost only seven league matches since the summer of 2016. They narrowly missed out on promotion to Liga 2 in each of the last two seasons, but are strong favourites to make it third time lucky. The town of Csíkszereda, known in Romanian as Miercurea Ciuc, is well-known as the coldest place in Romania, a hotbed of ice hockey, and the home of one of the country’s favourite beers. The population is 80% Hungarian-speaking, and Székely culture is promoted and supported by various organisations, some of which are based in Hungary. The football club has gone from strength to strength since the Hungarian government, through the controversial Puskás Academy, started investing heavily in the club’s youth programme in 2013. Promising young coach Valentin Suciu, 38, is from Sfântu Gheorghe (Sepsiszentgyörgy in Hungarian), just down the road. He guided the local team Sepsi OSK from non-league to the top flight in four seasons, before departing a year ago following poor results in their debut Liga 1 season. Can he pull off a similar trick with Ciuc?
The tiny stadium in Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc is hosting its first ever night game, with floodlights hired specially for the occasion. (We’re into the vivid present tense now, you’ll notice.) Two thousand people are in attendance, celebrating their team’s achievement of getting this far. Hungarian and Székely flags are on display. There is a rousing rendition of the Székely Hymn, considered inflammatory by nationalistic Romanians – a few of whom are here with, not to be outdone, a very big Romanian flag. The locals dominate the first half, and even the appearance of an attacking substitute, Gicu Grozav, before half-time cannot force a scoring chance for the visitors. Immediately after the break, Budapest-born defender Adrián Majzik puts a twenty-five metre free kick into the bottom left hand corner of the Dinamo net to give the underdogs the lead. We’ve got a game.
But things would get even better: five minutes later Majzik’s fellow Puskás Academy alumnus, and possibly the most Hungarianly-named person ever to have lived, Szilárd Magyari, smashes an unstoppable shot from outside the area into the top corner to make it two-nil.
The crowd go nuts.
Only two minutes after that, Dinamo’s captain Dan Nistor replies with a long-range belter of his own to halve the deficit. And then not five minutes elapse before he’s at it again, rescuing his team with a low drive into the bottom corner which takes a deflection off a defender. Four goals in twelve minutes and it’s all square again!
No further goals are scored and the game goes to extra time. As soon as the second half of the added period kicks off, a great through-ball allows Mihai Neicuțescu to take advantage of a slip by the Csíkszereda defender and put Dinamo ahead for the first time, with only fifteen minutes to play. Surely the plucky locals’ dream is dying? Yet, in the 116th minute, a free kick near the corner flag is delivered into the Red Dogs’ penalty area. A Dinamo head fails to clear the ball and local lad István Berde is there to add an ungainly but effective finish past keeper Vlad Muțiu. Three-three. The emotion of the night, the passion of the crowd, the crazy to-and-fro of the second half… Would there be anything left for the penalty shootout?
The first penalty taker for the home side steps up and hits a tame shot which is saved easily by Muțiu, diving to his right. After another Csíkszereda player misses, the visitors are 3-1 up in the shootout and sitting pretty. But then experienced midfielder Sergiu Hanca blasts his over the bar to give the hosts a sniff. And it comes down to the tenth kick, to be taken by Grozav. The winger is a current Romania international, but was without a club when Dinamo picked him up a month ago. If he scores his penalty, his team avoid the embarrassment of going out of the cup to a third division team for only the second time in their history; they also keep alive their one hope of qualifying for Europe and avoiding possible financial meltdown. Maybe they can kick-start their season…
Watch the kick here. Suffice it to say that, given the circumstances, it is one of the worst penalties you’ll see: an over-hit panenka that sails harmlessly over the crossbar. So the shootout continues to sudden-death.
At 5-5 Muțiu makes a save. Then his opposite number Dániel Bordás does the same! And then Muțiu pulls off his fourth and best save of the shootout! Young Denis Ciobotariu steps up to take Dinamo’s ninth penalty, but his is saved too, yet another one at the perfect height for Bordás. A blond boy called Zsolt Nagy keeps his cool to give the home team the lead, and it falls to Dinamo’s 20-year-old Belgian full-back, Kino Delorge, to keep them in the Cup.
The nervous looking Delorge does a little shimmy at the end of his run-up. Bordás is easily out-dancing him. The goalkeeper appears to succeed in putting the Belgian off, as the kick is low and feeble and easily stopped. And the underdogs have done it! Bordás runs off in celebration, the crowd rejoice!
But, incredibly, the referee pulls them all back, as he has decided to punish Bordás for coming way off his line. Four minutes of bedlam ensue. This includes around one minute of discussion between ref and assistant. (How long does it take to say “he was too far off his line”? Never mind that neither official was actually watching the keeper.) One of the home players receives a straight red card for protesting. The penalty must be retaken. Everybody must go through all this again…
And so Delorge… sees his retake saved as well! Bordás is reluctant to go mad this time, staring at the referee just in case he is doomed to face off against Delorge until the Sun burns itself out, but the officials are happy to let this one stand. Csíkszereda really have done it: they’re through to the quarter-finals of the Romanian Cup!
The day after this historic humiliation, it is announced that Grozav and Delorge will both have their contracts terminated, “by mutual consent”, with immediate effect. Rednic will replace them with players who are prepared to give their all for the famous red shirt, an attitude conspicuously missing from most of the team on this remarkable night in Miercurea Ciuc.
FK Csíkszereda can look forward to a quarter-final after the winter break, in late February, with the competition shorn of two of its heavyweights. They couldn’t go all the way, could they?
*More from the journalists’ union handbook
**They broke their win drought yesterday, after I’d written most of this post, although they did need an injury-time penalty to beat bottom club Voluntari.