Sunday 22nd May, 2.00pm. Stadionul Valentin Stănescu, Bucharest.
Round 9 of the Liga 2, Serie I play-off phase.
The weekend has got off to a good start, with Dunărea Călărași unexpectedly losing at home to Farul Constanța on Saturday. This means that Rapid can secure automatic promotion as champions, if they win this afternoon. Academica Clinceni are bottom of the play-off table and have nothing to play for. And it’s another glorious sunny day in the capital, making for a very pleasant stroll from the metro to the stadium. Unlike our three previous trips to Giulești this spring, however, there is already quite a crowd outside the ground when we arrive, half an hour before kick off.
Thanks to our friends providentially nearing the front of the abnormally long ticket queue at this time, we manage to get hold of some of the last tickets in the kiosk. The tribuna, along the eastern side of the pitch, where we normally stand, is sold out, so we make do with the peluza at the northern end. There is some disgruntlement among queuing fans at the paucity of remaining tickets, but (once you’ve got yours) it is a great sight to see so many people turning out for this match. The prospect of celebrating promotion has drawn a crowd more in keeping with the status of the club than the attendances at recent games have been. After speculation about plans to redevelop the ground and about the football club’s (in)ability to pay its way, the Rapid sports club has had to publicly deny that this will be the last game at the state-owned Valentin Stănescu Stadium and has urged calm among supporters, to prevent seats and turf being ripped up as souvenirs today. Still, nobody really knows what is going to happen after the end of the season, so a fair few spectators are probably attracted by the last-chance-to-see element.
Our first experience of the peluza, after a frisk and an apprehensive glance up at the unfamiliar concrete stand, is of a place filling up with people who are in the mood for a singalong. There are plenty of families. The club hymn, as the teams emerge, urges the boys in maroon to give it their all, something which has not always been evident on our previous visits. Given that the players are apparently working for nothing, this is understandable; but the ultras expect. Today we are far from the Radicals in the tribuna; instead, we are right behind the smaller group of Originals, and their enormous flags are doing a good job of blocking our view of the pitch. Consequently I miss a lot of the first half, which I shall record as uneventful, but Rapid score a goal up the far end late on, to go into the break ahead. Clinceni have certainly looked as lively as the home side – which is not saying much – and probably more skilful, but at home Rapid have a knack of somehow coming up with a goal and then, even more improbably, successfully defending their lead. Could this be my fourth consecutive 1-0 home win?
It is a scorching afternoon, and the solitary little refreshment stall – a folding table with a big bottle of Pepsi and a big bottle of water, plus the odd bag of sunflower seeds or crisps – outside the stand has run out of water. I hope my son can survive the next hour without refreshment, and stretch the scarf guiltily over the back of his neck (forgot the sun cream). Although our view has been obscured by flag-waving, it has really been all about the atmosphere. The rapidiștii are in good voice, and the tribuna to our left is great to look at: it is pretty much full, and there are flares, more giant flags, lots of jumping up and down. Everyone is giving it a go. But I am resigned – even content – to see out a goalless second half.
Academica Clinceni, from a village on the south-western outskirts of Bucharest, were last season based in Pitești and called Academica Argeș, having been founded in 2005, as CS Buftea, in a small town beyond the northern fringes of Bucharest. Understandably therefore, but disappointingly nonetheless, there is not a single away fan here. Even Brăila had one.
Paying no heed to my enjoyment of the experience away from the turf, the teams come out for more football. There are ludicrous dives and absurd faked injuries aplenty – the kind of thing that makes Romanian football almost unwatchable for long periods – but around the 70th minute the visitors’ pressure yields an equaliser, from a corner. The crowd is deflated, but straight from the kick-off Rapid attack and before we know it the ball is in the net down our end, through a first-time shot from Vlad Morar, who also scored the first goal. It later emerges that Morar had initially refused to play this afternoon, presumably because working for free while corrupt businesspeople squeeze every leu they can from the game wasn’t what he had had in mind when he chose this once-romantic profession. Anyway, the Accies were level for just one minute. Now confidence flows back onto the terraces and apparently also onto the field: ten minutes later it’s 3-1 and all over. Such is the mood that the home players seem to forget to spend five minutes holding it up in the corner to waste time: it looks for all the world like they actually want to play for the full ninety.
Another even game, but another Rapid victory. The fans’ relationship with the club has been severely tested over the last few years, and stories emerging from behind the scenes suggest an unedifying level of infighting among the people (mis)managing the 90-year-old institution. Yet after the final whistle goes there is a surge of love from the topless, tattooed faithful down to the players who represent them. First there’s a huddle, the players’ kids come on, and then a big bloke in most of a suit, then the team does the rounds of the two and a half sides of the ground which are populated. They are received warmly, although special treatment is reserved for popular goalkeeper Virgil Draghia.
The day has been unforgettable. In my son’s first ever football match, he got a scarf and there was a goal after two minutes. How to top that? In his second, a week later, his team secure promotion to the top division and score three goals in front of a decent crowd.
We will have to wait and see whether Rapid retain top spot: the last round of matches is next weekend, and at some point either they will have six points deducted, or they won’t. Nobody seems to know whether this will really happen. Here is the table as it stands:
What could conceivably happen is that, next Saturday, Rapid win at Bacău and Dunărea lose in Clinceni – that would increase the gap at the top to eight points, meaning Rapid definitely go up. (Unless they go bust.) However, I am keeping 1 June free, for the baraj, the play-off between the two second-placed sides in their respective second divisions. Second in the other series will be either Chindia Târgoviște or (more interestingly from a historical point of view) UTA Bătrâna Doamnă, the reincarnation of a great club of the 1950s. Another possibility is that Brăila could still overtake Rapid, if the six points are taken and we lose to Bacău. Watch this space…