Who says nobody cares any more in Romanian football?
Me, I say that, usually. And the people I talk to about it tend to agree, unhampered by their having no concrete existence outside my head. But last weekend saw tension, passion and confrontation on and off the pitch at different ends of the pyramid. Warning: may contain naughtiness.
Down down, deeper and down
CSA Steaua is a club founded by the Romanian army, which has stripped the first-division side run by Gigi Becali of the right to call his team Steaua after protracted legal wrangles. (Read more here.) The loyal reader will recall that in the 2017-18 season, its first in competition, CSA narrowly missed out on promotion from the Bucharest Liga 4. This was due to the sudden appearance of a reborn version of the defunct Rapid Bucharest, with shadowy owners flashing the cash, players rolling back the years and fans rediscovering the pleasures of watching, you know, football. After a disappointing defeat to Rapid in the promotion play-off last spring, the failure of the CSA Steaua project was put down to bad timing; it was widely held to be inevitable that the army team would waltz into Liga 3 the following year.
On Sunday afternoon CSA took to the field at the Regie stadium in this year’s Bucharest Liga 4 promotion play-off. Their head coach was Steaua’s most successful ever player (ten league titles, six Romanian Cups and a European Cup), Marius Lăcătuș. The team had finished the regular Liga 4 season six points clear at the top, averaging more than six goals per game and having conceded only six times in thirty matches.
But let the narrative klaxon sound, for their play-off opponents this time around were… Carmen București. While the name doesn’t have the cachet of a Rapid or a Dinamo, nor even the proud history of a Juventus or a Venus, Carmen were players on the Bucharest scene before the Second World War. However, their finest season was also their last. After the Communist takeover in 1945, the bourgeois proprietor of the club agreed to modify the name of the club to include a reference to a trade union, and thus qualify for continued membership of the FA. Soon afterwards he refused to have his team play a friendly match against Dinamo Tbilisi which the politburo needed Carmen to lose; as a result the club was banned from playing foreign opposition. Then after finishing as runners-up in the league in 1946-47, behind champions ITA Arad, Carmen București was unceremoniously dissolved by the authorities, its players distributed among its competitors and its place taken in Divizia A by a brand new club by the name of ASA București. This ASA (Asociația Sportivă a Armatei) was the team of the army; it would dominate the country’s football, becoming known in 1961 as Steaua.
Carmen was refounded in 2017 – around the same time as Academia Rapid and CSA Steaua themselves – and, even though seven decades had passed, it still felt to some as though the 2019 team were out for a very chilled plate of revenge for that acrimonious post-war dissolution. The Carmen ranks at Regie boasted several players with Liga 1 experience and a coach, Daniel Iftodi, who played for all three of the capital’s big clubs. Veteran Stelian Stancu once played for Becali’s Steaua; another team-mate, Jitaru, was released by CSA Steaua during the winter break.
Before the half-hour mark, Carmen manufactured a comically scrappy goal from not very much, as Jitaru’s shot went in off Alin Robu (a standout player for Metaloglobus in Liga 2 not long ago). The favourites were in big trouble. The Steaua ultras began to deface that charming little stadium, ripping out seats that had been installed ahead of Rapid’s move there this last winter. At the final whistle, having seen their strongly favoured team huff and puff to no avail, a small group of them invaded the pitch and attacked the stewards before the jandarmeria eventually moved in.
A week later, the same two teams contested the Bucharest edition of the Romanian Cup, the winner of which goes into the national draw for next year’s Cup proper. Lăcătuș had submitted his resignation on Monday morning, so his assistant – and former team-mate with Steaua and the national team – Ștefan Iovan – was boss for the day. CSA swatted Carmen aside, only deepening the fan’s disappointment at having played so badly the previous Sunday. Still, their participation in the Cup next season will create a headache for the Federation, who will have to face up to the fact that they will have two clubs in the same competition who claim the same identity and history, CSA and FCSB.
Up to the highest heights
In the top flight’s bad-tempered do-or-die crucial crunch survival six-pointer shootout between Hermannstadt and Dunărea Călărași in Sibiu, the scores were level after ninety minutes. This result would have condemned the Transylvanian home side to relegation and given the Danube-dwellers of Călărași a lifeline in the form of a play-off against the third-placed team from Liga 2. As time ticked away, a Dunărea player stayed down to try to run down the clock. An opponent grabbed his arm and started to drag him off the field. Everyone – players, coaches, substitues, officials – piled in on the touchline, and Hermannstadt’s manager shoved an opposing player in the back of the neck. Then, in the sixth minute of time added on, thanks to some appalling defence at a free kick, Hermannstadt sneak a scrappy winner. The 4,500-strong crowd goes bananas, there’s a (peaceful) pitch invasion, and it’s Hermannstadt who have the chance to stay up. Their opponents in the two-legged ‘baraj’ are Universitatea Cluj. The first leg (which the sibienii won 2-0 in Cluj) was marred by a riot police officer being seriously injured when he was hit on the head by a missile from the ‘U’ fans.
Also at the wrong end of the Liga 1 table this season were Dinamo, who managed an impressive feat: ninth place is their lowest ever league finish, ever, ever, in their entire seventy-year existence. Popular coach Mircea Rednic, a club legend for having won league championships as both player and manager, was summarily axed after eight months in charge. His replacement was to be Eugen Neagoe, who had led Sepsi Sfântu Gheorghe to unlikely heights – very safe in Liga 1, two seasons in a row – before resigning in May. However, this week it was reported that he had second thoughts about the new post when he saw the Dinamo ultras surrounding the club owner’s hotel late on Wednesday evening, chanting angrily and lighting flares that sent red smoke high into the night sky. The players have reportedly not been paid for two months. Neagoe has yet to be officially presented.
Viorel Moldovan’s Chindia Târgoviște will make their top-flight bow in 2019-20 after an impressive promotion campaign. The aforementioned overachievers Sepsi will have at the helm the former Hearts and Dundee United manager Csaba László. The nation’s GOAT, Gheorghe Hagi, has appointed his buddy Gheorghe Popescu as chairman of his club Viitorul, but will continue as coach himself, despite repeatedly threatening to quit over the past year or so. The perpetually disappointed FCSB owner Gigi Becali has a new
puppet head coach: Bogdan Andone took over this week after the exit of stand-in Mihai Teja. Andone is a close ally of Marius Șumudică, the former Astra boss (and purveyor of players to Gigi) who can’t possibly become FCSB coach himself because of his past as a celebrated Rapid player and all-round Steaua-baiter. Teja’s predecesssor, the young hopeful Nicolae Dică, is back at FC Argeș, who will be competing in another very tough second division next season.
More second tier news…
The mayor of Chiajna is seriously ill with cancer and thus his priority is no longer to pump money into the local Concordia football club: having been relegated after an incredible (and, mostly, unwatchably dire) run of eight seasons in Liga 1, they could well struggle next term. Pandurii Târgu Jiu, remarkably, managed to avoid demotion to the third level, but it could prove pointless as the club is on the verge of going out of business. ACS Poli Timișoara might follow them: they did go down, leaving their seemingly more viable, fan-run rival – ASU Poli Timișoara – trying not to gloat in the division above.
If you want to be manager of Aerostar Bacău, newly relegated from Liga 2, just email firstname.lastname@example.org. To whet your appetite, this is their ground:
Romania’s national team, in an experimental selection by Cosmin Contra, were lucky to snatch a 2-2 draw in Oslo against Norway, thanks to the predatory Claudiu Keșerü. Euro qualification looks a far-off prospect at the moment, and Spain visit Bucharest in September. One bright spot from the match was the performance of Ianis Hagi after his introduction late in the game. Has his time finally come?
The country is probably more excited about the Under-21 Euros. The Romanian side looks better than it has done for many a long year. The team, coached by former Steaua and Romania captain Mirel Rădoi and captained by the aforementioned Ianis Hagi, is pretty settled, with many of the players having grown up at Gheorghe Hagi’s academy or played together at his Viitorul club. Although Romania are in a group with England and France, hopes are high of performing well on the big stage. They kick off on 18 July in San Marino against Croatia. Hai România!