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By the time Romania play again, it’s October 1991 and they are being left behind in the group table. Half of their team have already moved clubs once more. My brother-in-law has seen the Blue Aeroplanes play the Reading Festival. And would it be impolite to mention that the Jiu Valley miners have been tearing up Bucharest again?
In an attempted reprise of their violent intervention of the previous year, in late September the miners hijack a train, gather a crowd of ten thousand demonstrators in the centre of the city, attack government buildings and demand the resignation of the prime minister and the president. The former, Petre Roman, an academic who was not part of the old communist elite, resigns; president Ion Iliescu, who was, remains in post. (The leader of the striking miners, Miron Cozma, will be imprisoned in 1999 for instigating the unrest, and then in 2004 pardoned by – guess who? – President Iliescu.)
The economic situation in the country is bleak. Food and fuel prices are rising, along with unemployment and discontent. The conditions in orphanages have attracted huge international media coverage and it has become the thing that foreigners associate most closely with Romania. Petrescu, Bogdan Stelea and Daniel Timofte are among the international players who have recently secured transfers abroad, mirroring a national pattern of newly mobile younger men heading west – although that is a somewhat crass comparison, given that top footballers are among the best-paid employees in the land.
The next guests at the Steaua stadium in Bucharest are the Scots, who remain top of the group, undefeated, and with only San Marino at home to come after this trip. Many travelling supporters find, on arrival at Heathrow airport, that they will be forced to stay in Sinaia, a mountain resort 80km from the match venue, due to the disorder in the capital a month earlier. The match is fairly open (highlights here) and Hagi, Lăcătuș and Kevin Gallacher all have great chances to score. In the 75th minute, Klein jumps for a dangerous Lăcătuș cross and Scotland striker Gordon Durie acrobatically punches the ball over his own dead ball line. Hagi takes the penalty; Goram goes the right way but the kick is too well-placed in the bottom corner. The returning Lung – who has come back home to Craiova after an unhappy spell in Spain – keeps a clean sheet, Romania win 1-0 and qualification is, somehow, still in their hands. However, Switzerland, Bulgaria and the Scots all have hopes of topping the group.
On 13 November 1991, Switzerland come to Bucharest. At the same time, Scotland and San Marino kick off at Hampden. One week later, Romania will play Bulgaria in Sofia. Between them, these three matches will decide which one of the four contenders goes to Sweden.
Romania line up against the Swiss with the unfamiliar Adrian Popescu at right-back in place of the injured Petrescu. His vastly experienced defensive colleague Klein is badly injured after three minutes and is replaced by Dorinel Munteanu, a young midfielder who, like Popescu, has never played a competitive minute for his country. By far the biggest crowd of Romania’s campaign so far – 23,000 – goes nuts in the fog when Dorin Mateuț produces an unstoppable finish from the edge of the D, halfway through the second period, to give the home side a lead that they will not relinquish. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, Scotland have won 4-0, which means that Bulgaria and Switzerland are both out of contention and it’s one from two. Romania must beat Bulgaria in Sofia and score at least two goals in the process.
Michael Klein will never add to his 90 caps, accumulated over a remarkably consistent ten-year international career. “The German” – he is from the Saxon minority in Transylvania – will soon die of a heart attack, aged just 33, during a training session at his club Bayer Uerdingen. The stadium in his hometown of Hunedoara will be renamed in honour of this local hero.
Ay, ay, Sofia
The players that finished the Swiss match start in the Vasil Levski stadium. Răducioiu skins his defender and hares towards goal, only to be brought down by balding Bulgarian goalie Boris Mihailov. Usually a reliable penalty-taker, this time Hagi plays the ball much too close to the keeper, who gratefully deflects it away. It is Adrian Popescu who gives the visitors the lead. Sabău neatly buries a lovely one-two with Lăcătuș but the goal is disallowed, the Danish linesman judging the nearby Răducioiu to have been a fraction offside. It’s been all Romania so far. There’s a short black-and-white highlights video here.
It will later be alleged that at half-time someone goes into the Bulgaria dressing room and reminds the players that an inquiry will follow unless they look a bit sharper. Whether this person is a UEFA official, concerned about the integrity of the competition, or Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh himself, worried that these neighbours will fix the game at the Scots’ expense, is not clear, which suggests it is entirely made up. Of course, blaming on-pitch failures on dirty dealings beyond one’s control is a regular routine in these paranoid parts. Essentially, Hagi missed a penalty that would have given Romania a place at the tournament. As if that wasn’t bad enough, contrary to the Romanians’ apparent expectation that their neighbours would let them get what they needed, Stoichkov sets up Sirakov to equalise after 55 minutes, and the visitors cannot find a winner.
Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh: he didn’t do it. [Source: fifa.com]
So Scotland will go to Sweden, where the team will (naturally) go out at the earliest opportunity, but the Tartan Army will (naturally) go out and have a grand old time anyway. What can the Romanians do to ensure that a team featuring arguably their greatest-ever talent does not fail to make it to the next major tournament? Don’t touch that dial…