Saturday 23 September 2017, 11.00am.
Metaloglobus Stadium, Pantelimon, Bucharest.
Liga 2: where football clubs come to die.
The TV money is pitifully small. Attendances too. The lack of interest and exposure severely limits sponsorship income. Wages are crap and often not paid on time. This is Romania’s second-tier football model in the 21st century:
(1) A well-supported, historically big club gets relegated from Liga 1 and marooned here for a year or two, paralysed by old debt, before going bust and starting again from scratch in the county leagues. (For example, of the six teams relegated from Liga 1 in 2015, the summer of league restructuring, only one, Gaz Metan, is still in existence – they immediately got promoted back to the top flight.)
(2) A relatively long-standing little team funded by a local businessman or the town council will have a crack at the big time for a bit, then run out of money and/or enthusiasm. The club dies, unmourned.
The field is thus left open for practically anyone in the regionalised Liga 3 to put a promotion run together and have no fear of next year’s opposition. Last year Juventus and Sepsi OSK both went up to the first division a year after promotion from the third, leapfrogging the moribund, penniless swamp that is today’s Liga 2.
Metaloglobus has the potential to be another one of those upwardly-mobile clubs: the vacuum-like nature of the current second-division set up ought to suit this venerable factory club without a factory. They own their own ground and are coached by a former Romanian international, a local boy, who more recently was coach of Hagi’s Viitorul and the national under-17s. They are also, technically, the capital’s third-best football team right now (Voluntari and Chiajna don’t count because they’re beyond the city boundaries, and Juventus Bucharest are currently playing home games in Ploiesti), even though they had never been above the third tier in sixty years of existence until they won their series of Liga 3 this summer. They have, however, found the going tricky so far this season: after eight games they sit 14th, with only two wins.
In contrast, today’s opponents ASA Târgu Mureș have lost only once so far, against fellow high-flyers Ripensia Timișoara, and sit third in the table. Which is perhaps not surprising, given that in 2015 the club finished runners-up in Liga 1 and won the Super Cup, and in 2016 they finished sixth with national team legend Adrian Mutu on their playing staff. However, a nine-point deduction for insolvency last season invited relegation and they duly finished bottom. Eleven changes of head coach, in just over two seasons since those heady days of June 2015, can’t have helped much. Sorry – make that twelve: Marius Popescu was appointed on Wednesday.
This is one of those grounds, like neighbours Juventus, with an unforgettable approach. A heavy-industrial district; a break in the high-rise blocks; a busy roundabout, apparently a major maxi-taxi terminus, with a retail park behind; two dog-exercising areas; a patch of waste ground; and there you have it, stretched out in front of you. The glorious Stadionul Metaloglobus.
The stand, which is on the east side of the ground, accommodates about 300 – or it would if all the seats were intact. As it is, there are a lot of people perching uncomfortably on metal bars, using their jackets as padding. There is a separate enclosure for travelling supporters, and another for people with a connection to the club. When I arrive, right on kick-off, the former contains four people and the latter about fifteen, but the numbers soon swell to exactly ten and roughly thirty, respectively. There is another unofficial viewing area, a building site at the south end of the ground, where seven old timers with carrier bags sit on the concrete and chew sunflower seeds.
The stand slopes steeply down to a wire fence, and beyond that only a three-lane running track separates us from the (synthetic) pitch. I take up a position standing, as close to the action as I can get, near the noisy drum man. As this is my first game of the season anywhere other than Giulești or the National Arena, in steep and crowded stands some way from the field, it is a treat today to be able to see the players’ faces and hear their complaints about the accuracy of their team-mates’ passing.
The fans in the main stand, which is full, assist in the audibility of the participants by keeping strangely quiet, while the man with the drum and his choir of three giggling, sheepish ultras are in the tribuna oficială to our right. “Meta-lo-globus” they chant at regular intervals. Only late in the second half are we treated to something beyond the mere name of the team: “Avem echipă, avem valoare: Metaloglobus cea mai tare” (“We have a team, we have value: Metaloglobus, the strongest!”).
The visitors push forward a lot early in the game but can’t spring the Metaloglobus offside trap, keeping the female assistant referee on the near side very busy for the first twenty minutes. The home side are driven by a creative duo in midfield: a big-bottomed number 8, Ghenovici, and a short fellow scurrying about, wearing number 10 and a scrum cap, the captain Stânga.
The first goal comes from a hesitant Metaloglobus attack on the right flank. Ghenovici is offered no suitable options by his team-mates in the final third of the pitch, so he shuffles forward to give himself space and lets fly with his left foot from outside the area; the shot, very satisfyingly, goes in off the crossbar. As the stadium PA system announces the scorer, a bloke in the dugout area opposite us stands up in a hurry and dashes up the steps to the camera gantry to update the scoreboard. This involves pulling out the big card with a zero on it from underneath the word “hosts”, turning it round and slotting it back in so that a 1 shows. A taxing duty, one whose completion will not be trouble-free this morning…
Not long after, on the left side this time, Stânga sets up winger Vlăduţ Vlad and the youngster, from the edge of the box, buries his shot beyond the keeper into the bottom corner. The home crowd are very happy with the scoreline going into half-time. A few of them have even applauded the goals. But most can’t be bothered. The thought presumably goes: Stuck for something to do in Pantelimon on a Saturday morning? Why not pop along to sit in discomfort and react impassively to our local lads dismantling a team that you saw nearly win the league title a couple of years ago?
The second half brings more
joy unbounded shuffling indifference from the home crowd: Ghenovici and Vlad combine neatly on the left edge of the area, the defence scramble the ball away but Alin Robu, who is having a good game at right-back, strikes beautifully above the goalkeeper into the net. The Metal Globes (as they aren’t known) are cruising towards a rather unexpected victory. Obviously unaccustomed to so much activity during a match, the scoreboard man slots the 3 in upside down. Fortunately, he hears the chants of “Schim-ba treiul!” (“Change the three!”) and rectifies the error. Barely ten minutes later, your man Ghenovici lashes a free-kick in for number four and comes over to the fans, celebrating wildly. The fans barely crack a smile and I feel a bit sorry for the poor lad.
Ghenovici and Stânga have been everywhere today; ASA have not had a look-in and the home goalkeeper Geanta barely has a save to make until a late rally by the visitors. The closest the târgumureșeni have come to parity was in a bad-tempered first-half scuffle involving half a dozen players from each side, which ended with (dis)honours even.
ASA slip one place to fourth in the table. Sibiu side FC Hermannstadt extend their lead at the top with another win, and both they and Ripensia Timișoara (in third) look plausible candidates to be the next clubs to ascend from third tier to first in consecutive seasons. As for Metaloglobus, they rise one place to thirteenth. If the Golden Balls (as they aren’t known) can continue to play like they did today, they will comfortably survive at this level and, just maybe, build towards Liga 1 next season…
…when their ground won’t meet the requirements, so they will have to play home games in another town, alienating any support they might have gained during their joyous promotion season and reducing attendances even further. The season will be a constant struggle to continue in existence, and they’ll be in the play-out so no games against the big clubs for half the season.
Just think. It’s all in front of you, fellas.