Proper football at the magnificent Arena Naționala. Sunday night, at the customary kick-off time of 8.30pm – painfully late for everyone who has to get up at six thirty on a Monday – saw a feisty and well-attended eternal derby in Bucharest. What the match lacked in quality, the occasion made up for in atmosphere and energy.
Sunday 2 April. Ticket price: 35 lei, for Tribuna 2 “periferic”.
It’s the third round of the play-off phase in Liga 1: the top six teams all play each other home and away to determine the final league placings. Dinamo have drawn both their games 0-0 so far in this stage and lie fifth. Steaua are third in the table behind Viitorul and CFR Cluj.
Except, of course, it isn’t Steaua. Not any more. Gigi Becali’s club, known until last week as Steaua – you know, the team that won the European Cup in 1986? – has been plunged into an identity crisis. It is now officially called FCSB, thanks to a successful legal challenge by the Romanian army, which owned the club until 1998 and has finally asserted its continued ownership of the brand. Note that the letters do not stand for anything – Becali says he was denied permission to choose the name “Star” (the English translation of Steaua) or even “Soarele” (the Sun… because it’s a star).
So tonight is really the first ever encounter between FCSB and its
oldest only (to date) rival Dinamo. And yet my ticket still reads “Steaua”. The stadium announcer calls them “Steaua”. The fans, naturally, are still Steaua fans. And there are lots of them here tonight: the haemorrhaging of home support in the past few years of Becali’s reign has seen attendances fall off a cliff, but the national stadium, which holds 55,000, is probably half full, a huge crowd by current standards. We have a good vantage point, standing at the top of the lower tier in the north-east corner, not far from the buzzing Dinamo end. This ground has fantastic acoustics, holding the noise in so it feels like you’re indoors: a far cry from the open stands at Rapid or Dinamo. The dinamoviştii, hugely outnumbered as the designated away fans tonight, and corralled into one end, out-sing, out-chant and out-pitch-invade their enemies. The ultras have imported their own end, the Peluza Cătălin Hîldan, from the Dinamo Stadium. After all, the National Stadium is hardly enemy territory: it’s often Dinamo’s home ground too.
The stadium itself is a wonderful construction, ideal for big matches like this one. Or this one. So the ticket office doesn’t accept card payment? Who cares – there’s a cash machine just 15 minutes walk away, probably. And the public transport link consists of rickety trams which travel at walking pace? All part of the matchday experience. Even the security lapses only add to the fun and drama of the evening: whether it’s hundreds of flares getting into the ground for the game against Poland, or solo pitch invaders tonight.
But to the game. We get into the ground just in time* to see
Steaua sorry, FCSB take an early lead through a wonderful finish from outside the box by Dennis Alibec, the forward bought from Astra in January to turn the team into champions. The 26-year-old Alibec is from Mangalia, a small Black Sea coastal town with (gratuitous detail) a fine 16th-century Ottoman mosque.
He went away to Inter Milan aged 18, full of promise, but has only made his mark since his move to Astra Giurgiu three years ago. Last season he was top scorer for the champions, and although his form had slumped along with his team’s in the autumn, tonight’s opener is his fifth goal in his eighth appearance since his January transfer to Steaua. He was quickly appointed captain and appears to be doing the job he was recruited to do. I have seen him play live only once before, and “live” is being generous: in October, appearing for Astra against Dinamo, he was clearly overweight as he sulked through most of the match at the unjustness of the world.
Ten minutes into the second half Dinamo swing a corner in from the left and some absent-minded defending allows Nemec to equalise from eight yards out. But the goal is not given. Disallowed for offside, it seems. The players are incredulous. The referee consults his assistant on our side, and the goal is finally dis-disallowed. One-one and the away fans are delirious. So much so that they spend much of the rest of the game chucking ripped-out seats towards the pitch. At one point an enormous drum, previously the innocent recipient of rhythmic blows to accompany enthusiastic chants, is hurled towards the stewards, and is surprisingly returned by the same without recrimination. Soon afterwards, a troupe of besuited
thugs entirely reputable gentlemen associated in some way with the club come over, apparently to pow-wow with the persons responsible for tearing up this possession of the nation.
With only fifteen minutes left on the clock, Alibec turns elegantly outside the area and conjures a wonderful dink into the box where left-back Momčilović chests the ball past his opponent and lays it back perfectly for Boldrin, who has only just come on as a substitute, to finish coolly into the bottom corner. Two-one.
Five minutes later, Dinamo substitute, Gary Neville lookalike Patrick Petre, flops to the floor in the FCSB area, but the Red Dogs’ penalty appeal is turned down. Then more drama! as home captain Pintilii receives a second yellow card for a shoulder charge on young Rivaldinho: the kind of shoulder charge that involves an elbow to the jaw. After another penalty appeal, in injury time Dinamo are also down to ten: Bušuladžić leads with his arm going up for a header and Boldrin writhes around in agony clutching his ear: this is enough for the referee to book the defender for a second time. There is much unrest among the Dinamo fans, who lob some more anti-Hungarian chants in the direction of the official – István Kovács is from a Magyar-majority town in the far northwest of Romania.
There is time enough for one more moment of excitement: we almost witness Rivaldinho’s first goal in Romania, but his 94th-minute header from a corner hits the post. So FCSB’s points are safe and they march on towards the championship. It seems that only Hagi’s Viitorul can stop them. But will they?
*We are delayed, not through unnecessarily lengthy security procedures at the turnstile this time, but because of shockingly poor service at our preferred pre-match restaurant. So we arrive late and hungry – but still not quite hungry enough to tuck into a stadium hot dog. Ew.