Saturday 16 September, 2017. 5.00pm. Stadionul Giulesti, Bucharest. Entry: 10 lei*.
The summer of 2005. Cast your mind back (if you’re old enough).
Ronaldinho was FIFA World Player of the Year. Michael Owen was a Real Madrid player. Steve Finnan and Harry Kewell were reigning Champions League winners. Everton had finished in the top four. George Best was still alive. Hang on – Tony Blair was prime minister. Tony Blair. And Daniel Pancu was still a Romania international.
It feels like a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Daniel Gabriel Pancu played his 27th and last game for Romania. And yet the man is still going.
Pancu, born on the same day as Thierry Henry, began his career with his hometown club Politehnica Iași, where he made his top-division debut in August 1995 against Steaua. In 1997, aged 20 and now hot property, he moved to Rapid Bucharest. Here is one of his early goals for the proverbial scrapbook. He played in the 1998 Cupa României final win, and featured twice in Europe the following season, scoring three times. [Challenge: find another player still going who scored goals in the Cup Winners’ Cup.] Also in that 1998-99 season, he helped to fire the club to its second ever league championship and missed a penalty in the cup final.
Gheorghe Hagi, in his third game in charge, gave Pancu his international debut aged 24, in October 2001; but, as a forward player in the era of Mutu, Ilie and Moldovan, not to mention Ionel Ganea and Marius Niculae, he did not become a regular starter until 2003. By this time, his prolific second spell at Rapid (following a year in Serie B with Cesena) had increased his value to the point that “the Ronaldo of Giulesti” was bought by Beşiktaş. The coach when he arrived in Istanbul was Mircea Lucescu, who had led Rapid to that cup and that league title, and who remodelled the striker into more of a midfielder; together they won the league title in their centenary year, 2003. Evidently a man who attracts colourful nicknames, Pancu once went in goal during a fiery derby at Fenerbahçe and his exploits between the sticks were thenceforth celebrated with the epithet “the Panther of Kadıköy” and then with the number 1 shirt. [See the video here.] At the peak of his powers, Pancu was a regular starter for the national team for over two years between 2003 and 2005.
But Lucescu left Beşiktaş under a cloud in 2004 and, after appearing less and less under his successor Vicente Del Bosque, Pancu was deemed surplus to requirements by the next man Jean Tigana, in 2006. There began the wilderness years: mostly unsuccessful spells with Bursaspor, Terek Grozny, CSKA Sofia and Vaslui, before returning to Giulesti in early 2011. By now 33, he was widely expected to wind down his career, but stayed for four seasons, enjoying/enduring two fourth-place finishes (2011, 2012), a cup final (2012), a relegation (2013), a promotion (2014), and, towards the end, increasing indignities at the hands of the club’s owners and certain coaches who didn’t pick him. He was reportedly the lowest-paid first-teamer at the club.
He spent one season at Voluntari, becoming the oldest player to score in the Romanian top flight, aged thirty-eight and three-quarters, in April 2016. His contract stipulated that he could not play against Rapid; not something that would be an issue, given his old club’s travails. Then in January this year he decided enough was enough: a persistent knee problem convinced him finally to hang up his boots and he accepted a two-year coaching contract. But that was before the Academia Rapid project was up and running: he is now a technical director and coach at the new club as well as appearing on the playing roster.
I first encountered this club legend three seasons ago, when he (alongside tonight’s team-mate Daniel Niculae) was part of the struggling, doomed Rapid team that unexpectedly beat Steaua in their own back yard (my report here!); when Pancu was substituted that night, he wound up the crowd by noisily saluting the boisterous away fans. “I get an orgasm when I see the supporters at the fence!” he said afterwards. Here he is with Niculae and the rest of the team, singing with the fans at Ghencea after that morale-boosting victory. So, like Niculae, he hasn’t been away for long – and he even played here at Giulești last week in a cup match – but it still feels like a big moment when he comes on as a second-half sub this evening.
The faithful at Rapid call him Pancone, and sing “Hey Panco, Panco italiano”, even when he’s not on the pitch. Then, for about twenty minutes before Niculae goes off, this fourth-division outfit boasts no fewer than 66 caps for Romania and eighteen international goals. Come on, isn’t that exciting? Tonight the 39-cap Niculae drops into midfield, allowing Pancu to take on the number ten role. He still struts about in the old style, but is definitely short of fitness and pace. However, the lacklustre performance of the first half – a period enlivened only by a little girl being stung by a wasp on its nest right in front of us (very painfully, judging by the noise) – is transformed into something altogether more composed, confident and creative with him on the pitch.
The deadlock is finally broken by hairy new signing Goge, who has looked slow and out of shape until now, and who missed a penalty very early on in a first half otherwise devoid of entertainment or event except for the wasp attack. From this point there is no danger of the Academia failing to win. In the 77th minute Goge passes the ball from the goal line into the area and Pancu’s dummy lets Bădiţă place his shot into the corner; the keeper is beaten easily and it’s two-nil. One minute later Pancu ruins a counter-attack with a rabona which goes straight out of play, but it doesn’t matter: he is six thousand Rapid fans’ favourite forty-year-old, running around Rapid’s football pitch in Rapid colours again.
Late on, CS Dinamo’s captain goes with studs up into a challenge on Pancu and the old feller lies prone for a while. It looks bad, but at least we can say we were here on the day Pancone played his last game, eh? It turns out, happily, that after a magic sponge from the comedy spherical physio he’s up and about again. He immediately has a stern word with the offending opponent, gesturing towards the packed tribuna, as if to say “you try anything like that again, son, and you’ll have this lot to answer to”.
Pancu would score a hat-trick against AS Tricolor in the next-but-one league match the following midweek. He may be so old that he played 120 top flight games in the 1990s and that Micah Richards and Theo Walcott have played their entire careers since he last appeared in a Romania shirt. But let’s enjoy this blast from the past while we still can.
*The man behind us in the queue, touchingly, thrust 10 lei into my hand, insisting that he pay for my son, and then ran off.