Saturday 14 May, 1.00pm. Stadionul Valentin Stănescu (Giulești), Bucharest. Liga II, Serie I, play-off, round 7.
We arrive at the stadium an hour before kick-off and the place is virtually deserted. A few young men in maroon scarves and tops had walked the same way as us from Crângași metro station, but there is no-one queuing for tickets and only one man in the club shop. It is my son’s first ever football match, so we go to get him a scarf. I buy a hat and a cap too, just in case the club folds and I never have the chance again. Someone arrives behind me while I pay and asks the shop assistant if he has anything in XL. The assistant says no and the man asks when he might get some in. My Romanian is not great, but I am pretty sure the shop assistant replies ruefully that nobody knows what will happen in the future, or if there even is one.
The sun is shining and all is well, as we eventually enter the stand with twenty minutes to go. At five to one, the ultras are mostly in place and soon the club hymn is blasting out of the PA system. Everyone seems to know the words except us and a pair of Dutch blokes behind us, but one line from the refrain is easy enough, “Haide, hai Rapid Giulești”. Come on, it says, and that is the substance of most of the chants we hear during the match. The supporters are the only thing enabling the club even to put on matches at the moment, and the team’s erratic performances away from home have been balanced by some solid but limited 1-0 home wins at this dilapidated but atmospheric ground. The administrator who resigned this week revealed that the club borrows money to pay the officials and the security firm and then pays it back with ticket receipts after the game. So the enthusiasm of the fans is crucial to the club’s survival from week to week.
The home team’s first attack brings a goalmouth scramble from a corner, and before we know it a goal has somehow happened! The PA awards it to Iulian Popa. Brăila, like Farul and Dunărea before them in recent weeks, seem to lack skill, confidence and ambition, but as ever Rapid are atrocious in attack. The game is riddled with misplaced passes from both sides, and every contact (frustratingly for viewers used to British football) results in a free kick. By half-time, there is no need to explain to my son that football is not just a succession of goals – he has seen the inept forward play and he understands that third-minute opener was an unrepeatable golden moment.
In the second half, Brăila manage a bit more offensive action, perhaps sensing that Rapid really are not good enough to score more goals. They are encouraged by their travelling support in the away section, consisting of one bloke in a replica shirt, with a flag and a megaphone. Amid a flurry of extravagant and often genuinely hilarious dives by both sides, like a group of eight-year-olds who have been watching a 1980s World Cup and discovered play-acting, Rapid have several good attacking positions, but manage nothing better than to hit the crossbar. At one point they fail even to muster a shot from a three-on-one thirty yards from goal. The substitute N’Koyi looks lively and shows a rare awareness of the game beyond his bubble, but is infected with the same inaccuracy and wastefulness as his team-mates. At the back, the Spaniard Fran Cruz has to come to the rescue several times as Brăila press for an equaliser.
The game takes longer to peter out than usual, both teams trying to play football up until the 85th minute or so. Coincidentally, this is also when the rain starts, so it’s damper versions of ourselves who make it back to the metro station. I have now been to five Rapid games, and that is the fourth consecutive one that they have won 1-0. I should definitely keep going – right?