I’ll admit it. I haven’t been following the footballing ups and downs of the footballing leagues much over the past year. But, with the end in sight, the time has come to scratch the footballing surface of what’s been going on around the footballing country during this footballing season.
Starting at the top…
Dan “the Badger” Petrescu is the man of the moment once more. This month marks thirty years since he played in a European Cup final, for Steaua Bucharest against AC Milan. It’s also ten years since he secured his first Liga I title as manager, with unfashionable village team Unirea Urziceni. And one year since he won his second by leading CFR Cluj to the championship ahead of FCSB (former name: Steaua Bucharest).
On 19 May, Super Dan’s CFR Cluj side will meet FCSB – once again their closest challengers – at the National Arena in the capital, in the final round of the season. But the railwaymen beat Universitatea Craiova 1-0 this weekend to secure their second successive championship and render the last game meaningless. It’s been a strange season for Petrescu: he left CFR for a big-money move to China soon after winning last year’s league title. This adventure ended, however, with his team bottom of the Chinese Superleague, and he was back early this year. In that time the Transylvanian club had parted with not only his successor but his successor too, and been embarrassingly knocked out of Europe by Dudelange of Luxembourg. They’ve remained top of the league for the past 24 rounds.
FCSB, Romania’s wealthiest, most successful and best-supported club, have not lifted the league or the cup since 2015 (when they won both). Four years without these pots is as long a drought as the club has had since the early 1980s, when that same Petrescu was in the youth system. Gigi Becali’s expensively-assembled squad are yet again underachieving, and it’s hard to look far beyond the owner’s decisions in the coaching department. The ex-Steaua striker whom Becali had plucked from the third division to head up the coaching staff in the summer of 2017 was finally ushered to the exit during this season’s winter break. Poor Nicolae Dică had quickly found himself in a similar position to many of his predecessors: under the thumb of the proprietor, who likes to pick the team himself, and mouth off regularly to the media about his employees. To his credit – arguably – Dică stuck it out: only Laurențiu Reghecampf has had a longer spell in “charge” during Becali’s sixteen-year reign. His replacement, Mihai Teja, who served as Steaua’s assistant manager in the late noughties, has not managed to turn things around. Becali does not intend to keep him on, describing FCSB’s play as “a total disgrace”. They took just two points from four games against the current bottom two. Second place, and the paltry Europa League place which that brings, is simply not good enough at FCSB.
U Craiova, meanwhile, are hoping for a second successive third-place finish and Europa League place. In October the club lost perhaps its greatest ever player, the ‘Blonde Wonder’, Ilie Balaci – a star of the early-80s ‘Craiova Maxima’ team and twice Romanian footballer of the year – to a heart attack. There was an outpouring of emotion in the city and among football-watchers nationwide. Then in February the team captain and top scorer, Alex Mitrița, signed for New York City for around €8 million, the third most expensive purchase of a Liga I player in history. He has some wise advice from Balaci tattooed on his neck: “Have fun on the pitch”. Tellingly, although he hasn’t played in Romania since December, he’s still joint third on the Liga I golgheters‘ chart. His former team, nicknamed “Știința” (Knowledge), will go head-to-head with Viitorul (Future) next weekend to settle the third place issue.
Alexandru Mitrița’s neck tattoo. [mlssoccer.com]
Astra, who will play Viitorul in the Romanian Cup final on 25 May in Ploiești, look like completing a top five identical to last year’s. Sepsi OSK are propping up the play-off table, having won only once in 2019, but they’re presumably just delighted to be there out of harm’s way.
Down in the doldrums of the play-out, have Concordia Chiajna lutontowned their way out of trouble for the last time?
Somehow Concordia, a team from a small dormitory town on the draughty western edge of Bucharest, have eked out eight consecutive seasons at the top level since promotion in 2011. During that time they have regularly been the most boring team in the league, scoring pitifully few goals, yet they have a tidy little stadium and have drawn a tiny but dedicated band of hardcore fans from the expat community. The team always seems to be in trouble, but a total rebuild job every winter break has seen them survive each year. In their second season, they would have gone down but for the administrative demotion of Rapid, who finished eighth.
Chiajna average one goal per game across their 8-year Liga I history. (Bear in mind that, thanks to the play-out format, they play every other bad team four times a season but the good teams only twice.) They’ve won one of their last 24 matches. They’ve won one of their last 17 home matches. They’ve won one game in the Romanian Cup since 2012.
In fairness there has been some glory along the way: they reached the final of the (meaningless, defunct and unmourned) League Cup in 2016, where they lost to FCSB. And they got on telly that time thanks to those crazy foreign fans. But – with due respect to my friends who support them – it’s hard to imagine that they will be missed if they do go down. Last December the attendance for their 6-3 home defeat against Poli Iași was 50; in February 2018 their clash with cross-city rivals Voluntari was witnessed by an incredible 15 people. They’ve won five games all season. They do still have five games left to make up the seven-point gap to Voluntari in the safety of fifth place. Stranger things have happened.
Another well-attended game at Concordia Chiajna. [digisport.ro]
AFC Hermannstadt are also in danger of dropping out of the top flight after one season, sadly without their fans having the chance to see them in their home town of Sibiu. The previously well-supported minnows have had to play home games in Târgu Mureș and Pitești, each more than a two-hour drive away, because their ground is being renovated. Dunărea Călărași have struggled too, but at least they’ve done it in their own little stadium.
Dinamo are proving once again that while they are rubbish, they’re not as rubbish as most of the teams in the play-out. However, the 18-time league champions are in a battle with Gaz Metan to avoid their lowest league position since 1960 (eighth).
This Liga II was billed as the most exciting in many a long year, due to the presence of several clubs with pedigree and (even more unusually) fans. Farul Constanța, Petrolul Ploiești and Universitatea Cluj are names with historical significance in Romanian football. All three went bust in 2016, and the reborn entities gained promotion from the third tier last summer. They joined UTA Arad and two Politehnica Timișoaras in what was expected to be a hotly-contested division. As it has turned out, Chindia Târgoviște, who missed out in the promotion play-off last year, have come on strong under coach Viorel Moldovan (England’s nemesis in ’98 and 2000) and sit in the second automatic place with four games left to play. The ambitious U Cluj and Petrolul, whose crowds this year would see them in the top six best-supported teams if they were in Liga I, are playing catch-up. On top of the table, more surprisingly, sit Academica Clinceni, a team with no history, which changed its name and home town three summers in a row from 2013 to 2015. The commune of Clinceni, to the south of Bucharest, has a population of 4,200. The stadium supposedly holds 1,900. The team’s average home gate this year is 282. If Academica get sucked upwards into the top flight – as so many little teams have in the last few years – the curious vacuum of Liga II will have worked its magic once again, and we may have to wait a little while for the fallen giants to regain their seats at the top table.
Dacia Unirea Brăila are going down to the third tier. In the past month they’ve been beaten 8-0, 9-0 and 9-1, as they annul players’ contracts and field the academy kids. ACS Poli, the unlikeable one of the two Poli Timișoaras, look to be following them. Upsettingly, the two teams with the best names in the division, Aerostar and Energeticianul, are also in deep trouble. Bucharest’s two representatives in Liga II, Metaloglobus and Daco-Getica, both appear headed for safety (although the latter are still in the relegation mix). Not being much cop is, as we should know by now, no barrier to staying afloat at this level.
Aiming to reach that dizzying level are the eighty teams contesting the five parallel divisions of Liga III. Rapid Bucharest secured their promotion on sunny Sunday with a comfortable 3-0 home win against Unirea Slobozia, in front of almost 10,000 supporters. (Romaniaballs was there, of course.) Rapid’s conquerors in the Cup this year, Turris Turnu Măgurele, have also booked their place in Liga II, as have the reborn Gloria Buzău. FK Csíkszereda Miercurea Ciuc, home of a Hungarian government-sponsored Puskas Academy, are in pole position to join them. Csík’s cup run, which saw them knock out two second-division teams and then – in dramatic fashion – Dinamo Bucharest, was unromantically brought to an end by U Craiova, who had squashed Turris in the previous round.
CSA Steaua look favourites to be in Liga 3 next season, and to win the Bucharest phase of the Cup. Both honours were denied them last year by the nouveau riche Academia Rapid (now just plain Rapid). To settle promotion, the team, coached by club legends and European champions, Marius Lăcătuș and Ștefan Iovan, will have to negotiate a lengthy play-off system.
Honourable mention here for the Rapid splinter group, the Crazy Beautifuls of Giulești, who squeezed through in their play-off to earn promotion from Bucharest Liga V to IV. Run by a small group of fans from Tribuna II (where Romaniaballs used to sit), this social enterprise is how I kind of wish the new dominant Rapid had been set up: no owner, no ethically dubious support from local government, no administrative secrecy. Of course, without all that dirty stuff, the wonderful, dream-like season of 2017-18 with Academia Rapid would never have happened. No Nicolae, no Maftei, no Pancu, no getting tear-gassed in a fourth-division derby at the national arena. But still…