Qualification for the 1994 World Cup starts early – even before Euro ‘92 has kicked off in Sweden. Romania are third seeds, drawn against Faroe Islands, Cyprus, Wales, Czechoslovakia and Belgium. Two of these teams will qualify for the finals in that magical dreamland, the USA.
This time, under incoming coach, 43-year-old Cornel Dinu, the old guard is out. In goal, Bogdan Stelea of Mallorca ousts the ageing Silviu Lung (76 caps) as first choice. The international careers of the defence of Iovan-Andone-Rednic-Klein (combined caps: 263) are over. Fellow veteran Adrian Popescu is also put back on the shelf, and his Craiova team-mate, the perennial stand-in Emil Săndoi, will play only a handful more games. Miodrag Belodedici, still only 27, finally returns to the squad after three years away, having been banned for defecting to Yugoslavia in 1988. He is now a double European champion, adding the 1991 title, won with Red Star Belgrade, to his 1986 medal from Steaua. Dan Petrescu, now of Foggia in Serie A, and PSV’s Gică Popescu are nailed-on starters. The midfield is still made up of Ioan Sabău, Ionuț Lupescu and Gheorghe Hagi, and the mop-topped “Beast”, Marius Lăcătuș, still harries defences up front, but there will be no more sightings of Mateuț (56 caps) or Cămătaru (75 caps).
With midfielder Iosif Rotariu also out of favour, only three of the team that lost to Denmark in late 1989 are still in the international reckoning in the spring of 1992. Lăcătuș and captain Hagi, aged 28 and 27 respectively, are now suddenly the elder statesmen, the only squad members with 40 caps to their name. And, after such disappointment against Bulgaria the previous November, it could hardly have started better for the Romanians.
The first qualifying double-header takes place in Bucharest in May, against the Faroe Islands and then Wales. Dorinel Munteanu and Gheorghe Mihali, teammates at Dinamo, have played all four friendly games since that dark night in Sofia, in largely experimental selections, and will start both qualifiers at Steaua’s Ghencea ground; against Wales these two will be the only starters based at Romanian clubs. To partner Real Oviedo’s Lăcătuș in the forward line, there is a recall for Gavril “Pele” Balint of Real Burgos who played just 45 minutes during qualifying for Euro ‘92. He bags a hat-trick, as the Romanians, five up by half-time, smack a couple more past Jens Martin Knudsen after the break.
Wales: episode 1
Impressively, a fortnight later they repeat the trick against a Wales team which had beaten West Germany and Brazil just a few months earlier. The team for this encounter is: Stelea – Petrescu, Belodedici, Mihali, G. Popescu – Munteanu, Sabău, Lupescu, Hagi – Lăcătuș, Balint.
Romania’s first goal, after five minutes, looks rather pleasingly British: Lăcătuș launches a counter-attack with a long, high crossfield pass; Balint’s Leonard Rossiter-esque head cushions the ball down into the path of Hagi, who races into the area and hits it over an onrushing Neville Southall. Two minutes later, Lăcătuș again pulls his trick of chipping the ball just over the wall at a free-kick, which worked against San Marino in 1990; again Lupescu is there to add the finish. The same combination provides the third, Lupescu striking neatly from the D into Southall’s bottom corner. After half an hour another terrific long diagonal pass from the back cuts to the heart of the Welsh defence; Balint controls in the air and with his second touch guides the ball past the unfortunate goalkeeper. Barely four minutes pass before a short corner is played to Hagi twenty-five metres from goal. He lets fly a swerving shot with his left foot which Southall can only palm into his goal. Two decades later, the sports newspaper GSP describes this 45 minutes as probably the finest first half in Romanian football history.
Early in the second period, Dean Saunders sets up Ian Rush for a well-taken poacher’s goal, but the jig is up for Terry Yorath’s men and they are lucky to have conceded only five. Manchester United’s wonderkid, 18-year-old Ryan Giggs, comes on for his third cap, to replace the only slightly older Mark Pembridge of Luton Town. After the game, you can see the Romanians celebrating the win (and Belodedici’s 28th birthday) in the dressing room. Lăcătuș and Sabău have taken some visible punishment at the hands of their opponents, but are all smiles.
There’s a party round Mircea’s house
The summer of 1992 sees transfers for some key players. Hagi moves on from an unappreciative Real Madrid to Brescia in Italy, where manager Mircea Lucescu is building a little Romanian colony: he also brings in Sabău from Feyenoord and Florin Răducioiu from Hellas Verona. Belodedici leaves Belgrade, amid the turmoil of the breakup of Yugoslavia, to join Valencia.
In the autumn the national team is back in action again: firstly, in Brussels against Belgium, who are top of the group after winning in Czechoslovakia. Dumitrescu’s sparkling domestic form finally earns him a first competitive start; the last time he saw action outside of friendly matches was as a substitute against Cameroon in the last World Cup. Balint, whom Dumitrescu replaces, will not appear again in a Romania shirt, and his playing career will be ended later in the season by a knee injury. Dinamo’s Tibor Selymes comes into the defence for his second cap, instead of the injured Gică Popescu; otherwise the team is unchanged from the Wales clash.
Rudi Smidts fires the Belgians ahead in the 28th minute, when a run takes him past Belodedici and Stelea cannot reach the low shot into the corner. The Romanians look threatening, especially with Hagi edging in from the right, but cannot score. Late on, Hagi dribbles into the area and draws contact from the defender; but the referee decides no penalty. The match finishes 1-0 to the Belgians.
Next up are the Czechoslovaks in November. Free-scoring Dinamo forward Ovidiu Hanganu is given a first competitive start, in an attacking line-up. Romania take the lead soon after the half-time break thanks to a run down the right by Lăcătuș, whose cross is eventually turned in by Dumitrescu. With just ten minutes left, however, Mihali brings down Pavel Kuka in the area and captain Václav Němeček converts the penalty to win a point for his side. It is Czechoslovakia’s last ever international match: in the new year the country will split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, though the combined team will complete the qualification campaign under the name “Representation of Czechs and Slovaks”.
Romania’s final match of the calendar year is away in Cyprus. An early long-range effort from Gică Popescu, restored to the side, settles any nerves. Răducioiu, in his first competitive appearance for a year, adds a second. Hagi and Mihali are the other scorers in a 4-1 win. The end-of-year standings see Belgium top of the group with 10 points, Romania second with 7, and Wales third with 4 points and a game in hand over the other two. In the country, a general election in November sees Iliescu’s ruling party victorious, but now without a majority: it has not gone unnoticed among the population that free market economics is mostly benefiting a well-connected elite.
The new year takes the national team on tour to the Americas, where they lose to Ecuador and Mexico, beat Peru, and draw with the USA in California – where better times were yet to come. But the squad is entirely selected from home-based players, meaning that of the first-choice team only Dumitrescu, Munteanu and Mihali are there. Daniel Timofte (of Irish penalty miss fame) and the recalled Emil Săndoi bring significant prior international experience, while Prunea, Selymes and Hanganu also travel and stake their claim for a regular place.
In April 1993 the qualifiers restart. Cyprus are the guests in Bucharest. Of the tourists, Săndoi, Selymes and Munteanu keep their places, along with the Sportul Studențesc attacker Gheorghe Ceaușilă. The Cypriots, who have just drawn with the Czechs and Slovaks, unexpectedly open the scoring. Dumitrescu decides that hospitality has gone too far and waltzes through the defence to equalise. In the second half, Hagi’s surgical through-ball finds Dumitrescu again, who knocks in the winning goal. Blushes spared once more.
Ahead of the next international, against the Czechs and Slovaks in Košice on 2 June 1993, Romania’s position in the qualifying group looks good. They sit in the second qualifying spot, with two games in hand over first-placed Belgium, who were beaten in Cardiff in the spring. Wales are third.
Only five of the players who featured against Cyprus are named for this game, as more of the established regulars are brought back into the line-up: the 36-year-old Lung is recalled in goal after fifteen months away. Young Steaua defender Daniel Prodan, enjoying his first season in Liga 1, is handed his international debut. In the absence of Petrescu, midfielder Sabău is employed as a stand-in right-back. Early in the second half, as Hagi puts Răducioiu through for his second equaliser of the match, the visitors harbour hopes of taking home at least a point. Immediately, however, the 21-year-old Peter Dubovský puts his side 3-2 up. Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen sends off Jiří Němec and Petr Vrabec in quick succession, but Romania cannot take advantage of their extra men and instead concede a further two goals from free-kicks to give the Real Madrid-bound Dubovský a spectacular hat-trick. For the Slovaks and Czechs the 5-2 result is a lifeline; for Romania it is “the Disaster of Košice”*. The headline in the next day’s Evenimentul Zilei reads “Goodnight, America, wherever you are” and coach Cornel Dinu is labelled “the gravedigger of the national team”.
Anghel heralds new dawn
Dinu is fired. Anghel Iordănescu is swiftly appointed to guide the team through their last three qualifying matches in the autumn of 1993. Having learned the craft as assistant to Emerich Jenei, boss of Steaua for their European Cup win in 1986 and of Romania at the last World Cup, Iordănescu has just led Steaua to their first league title of the post-Communist era. The final fixtures will be: away in the Faroes, then at home to Belgium, and finally away in Wales. The new coach does not make sweeping changes to personnel, though Lung will never play for the national team again. Prunea, not Stelea, will be Iordănescu’s number one… for now.
The game in Toftir sees Romania kitted out in rather nasty flecked shirts – reminiscent of Arsenal’s bruised-banana away kit of the same period. (See here for a worryingly comprehensive, illustrated account of Romania’s kits of the era.) Răducioiu, who has recently signed for Fabio Capello’s AC Milan after a good year at Brescia, scores all four goals against the part-timers. Răducioiu is partnered up front on this occasion by a small, moustachioed striker called Ion Vlădoiu, making his first international start: he played under Iordănescu at Steaua before signing for Rapid across town. The side is otherwise perfectly familiar and, as ever, captained by Gheorghe Hagi. The talisman has stuck around at Brescia under Lucescu – who gave him his first Romania cap ten years earlier – in spite of their relegation at the end of his unimpressive first season at the club. Just a year or so after ending an unhappy spell at Real Madrid, Hagi is thus now plying his trade in Serie B against the likes of Acireale and Fidelis Andria. (And the Fiorentina of Batistuta and Effenberg!)Embed from Getty Images
The first hurdle overcome, the top four teams in the group have now all played eight games. Belgium are still first on 14 points, Romania second with 11. Then, on 10 points, the Czechs and Slovaks sit ahead of Wales on goal difference. The Faroese whipping boys have completed their fixtures and are therefore out of the equation, but Wales look in a strong position, with both of their remaining games to be played on home turf.Embed from Getty Images
The first half against Belgium yields chances for both teams, Hagi and Marc Wilmots coming closest to scoring. Selymes and Munteanu are on the books of Cercle Brugge. In the second half Dumitrescu, playing on the left wing, has a goal disallowed from Popescu’s terrific lofted cross. Not long afterwards, though, Dumitrescu goes on a mazy dribble and wins a penalty by tripping over an imaginary challenge by skipper Georges Grun just inside the area. Grun takes time out to explain to Dumitrescu how unimpressed he is with such a caper, and goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme tries to persuade the Hungarian referee that the Romanian’s collapse was not entirely honest. Mr Puhl, however, saw no dive. Răducioiu slots the kick past the keeper and the home side are in front after 67 minutes.Embed from Getty Images
With only six minutes remaining, Răducioiu collects a long ball from Belodedici and squares for the onrushing Dumitrescu to sweep an unstoppable left-foot finish high past Preud’homme for two-nil. Late on, Prunea puts a long-range Philippe Albert shot out for a corner, which Belodedici handles on the ground in his own box. Enzo Scifo, the ‘Hagi of Hainaut’ as he is not known, makes no mistake from the penalty spot, but Romania hold on for a crucial 2-1 victory.
Read on to enjoy/endure one unforgettable night in Cardiff…