- Saturday 18 March 2017, 11.00am
- Stadionul Juventus din Colentina, Bucharest
- Ticket price: Free!
Tucked behind the row of tower blocks that face onto Șoseaua Fundeni in the north-eastern suburb of Colentina, the entrance to Juventus’ stadium is possibly the most welcoming of any Bucharest football ground. There’s a big, new, colourful sign. A bloke stands by a table beside the gate, dispensing free tickets and – startlingly – four-page matchday programmes. There are posters advertising the game not only on the stadium’s perimeter fence but also on newsagents’ kiosks in the local area. Does this happen every week, or is it special treatment for the visit of fellow promotion-chasers Sepsi OSK Sfântu Gheorghe?
Sfântu Gheorghe, which means St George, is a town in hilly Covasna county in southern Transylvania, where the majority of the population speaks Hungarian as a first language. The town’s name in Hungarian is Sepsiszentgyörgy, the “Sepsi” prefix referring to the origin of the inhabitants, who migrated from the area around Sebeș, far to the west. It is in the southernmost region of ethnic Hungarian predominance in Romania, only a half-hour drive from Brașov, and is home to the Székely National Museum, dedicated to this Magyar people who have been isolated from other, plain-dwelling Hungarians for centuries. The football club, currently the only representative of the Székely region in the top two divisions, has existed only since 2011: they won the Covasna county Liga IV in 2014, then the regional Liga III last season, joining today’s hosts in promotion to Liga II.
The original Juventus București was a (briefly) successful club between the wars, having been founded by the president of the Romanian-Italian Bank, but was moved to Ploiești in the 1950s and renamed Petrolul. This current Juventus is not a successor to that club in any legal sense – even though it does cheekily use the foundation date 1924 on its crest – but was formed when a tiny club called Calculatorul was renamed Juventus, in 1992. Wealthy local garbage magnate Ilie Ciuclea is the president; the club has a fine stadium and apparently a good youth system, which produced Fiorentina and Romania goalkeeper Ciprian Tătărușanu. The current goalkeeper, Ralu Stoian, has just been named in the latest Romania Under-21 squad.
Juventus’ current coach, former Steaua and Petrolul forward Daniel Oprita, is extremely animated this morning, often striding out of his dugout and yelling at his own players and the opposing bench. He only retired a couple of years ago: he’ll run out of energy if he makes it into his fifties. Alexandru Zaharia on the right wing for the home side has established himself as the standout figure on the pitch even before his beautiful seventh-minute strike to open the scoring. A lengthy profile in the programme reveals that he has moved back to the club where he spent his youth team days, because of a lack of first-team opportunities at his Liga I club Gaz Metan. Juventus completely dominate the first half, with only goalkeeper Niczuly showing his quality for the visitors. Sepsi’s central midfield pairing of the Senegalese Issa and the visibly aging Minciuna are unable to stamp their authority on the game. Issa gets a few boos on account of his skin colour, but after half an hour or so the morons in the crowd tire of this. A more appealing kind of abuse, it seems, for a small group of home fans is to chant nationalistic slogans at the sizeable away support. “Hungarians in the country, out, out” (it rhymes in Romanian) is the most frequent of these. The Sepsi supporters, to their great credit, refuse to react to this baiting just as, before the match, they had respected the Romanian national anthem in silence.
As half-time approaches, a rare Sepsi attack reaches the penalty area and Issa’s trailing leg is clipped by the chasing defender. Attila Hadnagy, 36 years old, club captain and the league’s top scorer, puts the penalty kick away for goal number 23 and the teams go in to the dressing rooms level at 1-1. John (a Celt) takes a break from talking Scottish football with Will (a Jambo) at half-time to pop out to the shop round the corner from the ground and smuggle some cans of Coke back into the stands: the stadium has toilets, loud music and a large police presence, but no refreshments on sale.
Hadnagy’s opposite number (well, he’s not wearing 77 but you know what I mean), the Juventus number 77, has looked one-paced, hopelessly one-footed and possibly no-skilled whenever the ball has come near him. Studying the team sheet on the programme, I assume that this hapless chump is on the field because the team’s main striker Chipirliu, with 18 goals in the league this season, is absent, possibly injured. The names on the back of the home team’s shirts are printed so small that we are well into the second half before I see that 77 is in fact the very same Chipirliu. By this stage the lumpen forward has restored his side’s lead, following a series of corners resulting from a free-kick given against Niczuly for clumsily handling the ball just outside his area.
Halfway through the second half a firecracker loudly explodes, apparently right in – or on – the away dugout. The bunch of about twenty openly anti-Hungarian idiots to our right, who are within chatting distance of the Sepsi bench, immediately point at the away fans in the style of primary school kids, as though the travelling supporters would have tried to injure their own team’s coach and substitutes. Understandably, the visiting staff are outraged, and demand that the referee take action. The referee comes over and gestures for calm. Everything settles down, except for a group of kids, some of them in Juventus tracksuits and therefore presumably juniors at the club, in the next stand, who start up new chants of ‘Romania’ and ‘Hungarians out’ in imitation of the adults over our side.
And the controversy does not let up. Eight minutes from time, the linesman awards a goal when it looked to the rest of us (admittedly a lot further away from the action) as if Niczuly had pulled off another remarkable save. The goalkeeper, adamant that the ball did not cross the line, marches up to the official, remonstrates angrily, and is sent off for his trouble – it turns out that he had been booked for the earlier handball, although we didn’t see the card, and a second yellow for dissent sees him (eventually, after more arguments) leave the field.
Although they must be disappointed to see their six-hour round trip go unrewarded, and must feel harshly treated by the officials, the hundred or so Sepsi fans have rarely let up in their vocal efforts. After the game finishes 3-1 the players go over and line up to show their appreciation of a commitment rather unusual in Romanian football. (I’m remembering the one fan from Braila who made it to Rapid’s game last season.) It is no doubt good for the safety of all involved that the Juventus fans don’t understand the Hungarian songs and chants of the travelling supporters: as it is, the jandarmeria have been videoing the behaviour of our bigots in front, and straight after the game they pull aside every member of the group to search them.
So Juventus march on towards another promotion: their lead at the top will be extended to nine points the next day, after second-placed UTA’s defeat at home to Brașov, who leapfrog over Sepsi into third. Liga I surely awaits. Will the owner install floodlights, expand the capacity and upgrade the facilities? Or will they be another Voluntari, able to host matches during daylight hours only?
On the whole, this match was a most satisfying and enjoyable experience – as long as you can put aside the slightly disturbing nationalistic vibe, but then you can’t spend long in Romania without encountering that kind of thing. The Juventus kit is splendidly monochrome with a vintage-looking diagonal stripe, and their football was pretty good too, in front of a crowd of something over a thousand. I look forward to the YouTube release of the full match video, which was recorded by a youth stood next to us. He had his earphones in throughout the game, but when he or his boss listens in to the soundtrack they’ll probably be surprised to hear an in-depth critique of Craig Levein’s managerial career.