Wednesday 31 May 2017, 5.00pm.
Stadionul Juventus, Colentina, Bucharest. Ticket price: free.
The final game of Juventus’ Liga 2 title-winning season sees a sparse post-work or out-of-work crowd taking to the precarious, flag-toting Tribuna 2 under a sunny sky with hints of a forthcoming storm. We position ourselves at the halfway line, behind the ultras, who number around thirty. These bad boys range in age from about 60 down to 10 or so, a few have smuggled fizzy drinks in, and by the end of the game a good proportion of them will have their tops off.
The covered stand to our right, meanwhile, is full of youngsters in matching white t-shirts: these are the junior Juventus teams, here with their mums. Perhaps what we mistake for ultras are instead the dads. This might explain why the blokes up their volume whenever it seems that the kids have the edge over them in the chant. Which is often. They are genuinely terrible at both drumming and singing, despite the efforts of their relentless, megaphone-brandishing leader. This man appears to have an endless stock of chants recycled from other Bucharest clubs with the name Juventus shoehorned in somewhere where it might just about scan if you slur it.
My favourite chant, however, is one which, playing on the Italian ancestry of the original Juventus Bucharest back in the 1920s, I think goes “Cine intra Serie A? Juventus Co-len-ti-na” (Who’s going into Serie A?). The name of the neighbourhood, Colentina, while not part of the club’s name, is added much like “Rapid Giulesti” in the Rapidists’ songs. And, like Rapid, this club belongs very much to its neighbourhood. The tower blocks which enclose the stadium quickly give way to a typical low-rise Bucharest district – repair shops, trams, insanely badly planned junctions – with the relatively unfamiliar addition of Turkish and Arab butchers, barbers and restaurants. There is, sadly, a threat to the continued existence of the stadium here, thanks to the sudden appearance of a landlord after the club announced its plan to improve the facilities at the ground. But these dangling questions are the kinds of things with which fans and confused bloggers keep themselves entertained during the summer months…
Again, this little club outdoes all its competitors by giving away not just its tickets but also that rarity, a match day programme. This time it’s an eight-page tome – admittedly a week out of date with its results and league table, but it makes up for that with a special two-page historical article on the original, inter-war Juventus București. (It bears repetition that the two clubs are not really connected other than in the sense that the current entity uses the name of the old club. When the old Juventus had a home of its own in the capital, between 1924 and 1934, it was to the west of the city centre, a long way from here; then the club was moved to Ploiești in 1952 and went out of existence in 2016.)
Speaking of clubs being moved around the country, today’s opponents are officially called Metalul Reșița. In less than a decade of existence, this club has had three different home towns, none of them near each other, but had just two different names, the current one being the former name of another Reșița club which is still going. This season they play at home in Snagov, not far out of Bucharest but a full seven hours’ drive from Reșița. The coach wears a red top emblazoned with “FC Snagov” on the back: this is the previous name of the club, Vointa Snagov, whose identity, staff and ground Metalul acquired last summer. The players are too far away for me to be sure, but the badge on their shirts doesn’t look like the one on the programme either.
Whoever they really are, this visiting team are not up to much. Understandably, since they are already guaranteed to finish in the relegation places but seem likely to survive at this level thanks to the dire financial travails of half a dozen clubs who will finish above them. It seems unnecessary to mention that there are no away fans here today.
Juventus need only a celebratory victory for the home fans: their Liga 2 title was confirmed weeks ago. At this late stage of the season, I think a few loanees have gone back to their parent clubs; a couple of the Juve players appear not to be regulars in the side, judging by how the name on the back of the shirt they’re wearing has been covered over with a small piece of cloth. One is a big-haired, Brazilian-looking defender who could conceivably be centre-half Wallace’s younger cousin, visiting for a couple of weeks and drafted into the team. (According to transfermarkt.ro, however, he is a 17-year-old Romanian called Diallo Francis.) The other is a terrifyingly childlike wide midfielder, who turns out to be another 17-year-old debutant, Robert Neacşu.
Juventus line up in what I take to be a very modern style, with just one striker (against a team fifteen places below them), a right winger who only has a left foot and a left midfielder who can only use his right. A cross from the left and a well-placed header from Bustea sees them go in front fairly early on in a poor quality match with few chances created. A Buhăescu free-kick doubles the lead before half-time, and frankly it hasn’t been much to shout about. (Naturally, our boys are giving it a go, though, with “Buc-rești, Juve Buc-rești”.) The captain Bărbulescu is replaced during the second period by the veteran Băjenaru, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the selection process for this game had been determined by the first letter of a player’s last name alone. An unusual bet on the Singaporean market, perhaps?
The most entertaining event of the second half is when the Metalul goalkeeper Botaş gets injured and has to come off, an eventuality which he clearly wants to avoid. The substitute keeper must be pretty bad – Botaş has conceded 13 goals in less than six matches. The nervous youth warming up (a 16-year-old called Raiu) is wearing a top that is a very different shade of yellow from that of his colleague. As Botaş comes off I see he is actually wearing FC Voluntari kit.
I have an idea for an alternative slogan to go with the division’s delightful new logo (pic above).
“Liga 2: it’s basically parks football.”
Young Raiu has just enough time to concede a late third goal from distance, and before we know it the crowd are sloping off. A hundred or so make their way around to the tunnel area, to get a frontal view of the trophy presentation ceremony. By this stage the rain has started, so we only stay for a few medals before wandering off for a kebab in the delightful Turkish restaurant nearby. Ramadan isn’t going to put this guy off. That’s it for the season – by far my busiest yet – and I’m already looking forward to the next, in the hope that not everyone will be playing their home games at a mostly empty National Stadium by then…