Friday 29 April 2016, 5.30pm. Stadionul Valentin Stanescu, Giulesti, Bucharest.
A lovely sunny Good Friday morning betrays no hint of the deluge to come. The rain begins as I emerge from Crangasi metro station and even though I’m wearing a big waterproof coat I am getting wet by the time I’ve walked the ten minutes up the road to stand in the queue at the ticket kiosk. But the rapidistii’s enthusiasm is not dampened by the weather, for this is crunch time. Your club needs you! say the posters masking-taped to the wall around the ground. Because it really does.
Another defeat, 0-2 at Dacia Unirea Braila, last Sunday means that Rapid have dropped to second place in the Liga 2, Serie 1, play-off phase. Top of the table, on goal difference, sit Dunarea Calarasi, today’s opponents. This is part one of a double header, with the return fixture to come next weekend, which will most likely decide which team finishes in the one automatic promotion spot. Second place means a tiresome two-legged play-off against the runner-up from Serie 2, and the winner of that tie will play the team which finishes third-bottom in Liga 1. A gruelling end to the season which both of today’s teams would prefer to avoid.
Plus… Rapid have now been in insolvency for three and a half years, and the talk online before the game is that if they don’t get promoted the club could be wound up. There is very little money in Romanian football, even at the top level, and four or five thousand people paying 15 lei (just under 3 quid) for a ticket here isn’t going to dent the enormous debts accrued in the early noughties – even if some fans do shell out for a plastic cup of cola and a pack of sunflower seeds too. The day before the game, there are also dark rumours about dodgy financial dealings (I know: can you believe it? In Romania!?) and further trouble to come. Rapid are no strangers to points penalties and adminstrative relegations.
Occupying Dunarea’s bench today is Adrian Mihalcea, a league and cup winner with Dinamo as a striker.
Both teams start nervously. The visitors have come hoping for a draw, with only one man up front. A goal for the home side through the head of Rafa Jorda (once a Primera Liga player with Levante), halfway through the first half, ought to force Dunarea to push forward more, but it is Rapid who continue to attack until the break. However, their problems in the final third are once again evident, move after move ending with an inaccurate cross or an overhit pass. The skilful Raiciu in midfield looks good again, but like last week no further end product arrives for the home team. The fans, many of whom have not brought so much as a coat or a brolly, are all soaked but continue to urge the burgundy shirts up the field with their extensive repertoire of chants. The stairwells and filthy corridors below the stands are crammed during half-time, but there’s no sign of the rain easing so we all have to stick it out for the second half. Dunarea (which means “the Danube”, so they’re probably more used to the wet) press forward much more in the second period, but are thwarted by solid defence.
At the end, Rapid’s fans are happy and in good voice, singing the praises of their boys even after the whistle has gone and many saturated spectators are shuffling and squelching back to the metro. This was Rapid’s third 1-0 win over the same opposition this season, and now perhaps the team have renewed confidence that they can get a result in Calarasi next week. The game will be played behind closed doors because of crowd trouble at their previous home encounter with Braila, so even the thirty or so travelling supporters who made it today won’t be there to cheer on their side. Hai Rapid!