Thursday 27th September 2018, 6.45pm
Stadionul Giulești, Bucharest.
Romanian Cup, fifth round.
Ticket price: 12 RON (£2) for Tribuna II.
Last Friday a couple of hundred people in this stadium saw Rapid huff and puff to a one-nil victory over Sportul Chiscani in their fifth league match of the season, a result which kept the team among the front-runners in Liga 3, series 2. As we approach the ground from the railway works, it becomes clear that the supporters were saving themselves for the bigger occasion. It’s half an hour till kick-off; Calea Giulești is all a-bustle and the pavement is hard to negotiate thanks to the milling fans and a good many badly-parked cars. Tickets are being sold from three booths, though there is no sign yet of the mobile fan shop the club is planning to set up on match days. (It apparently can’t use the former shop inside the stadium because that belongs to the defunct old club.)
Today’s opposition are a team from a small town called Turnu Măgurele, way down south on the banks of the Danube. Turris refers to an ancient citadel which stood on this site. (In 1396 the medieval Byzantine fortress of Nikopol in Bulgaria, directly across the water a few kilometres away, saw the Ottoman sultan Beyazit I defeat a crusade led by King Sigismund of Hungary. FYI.) Turris Turnu Măgurele are another third division outfit, so why such a big turnout for the visit of these riverbank dwellers?
The answer lies in Rapid’s long history, and in the equally long memory of its fans. From the club’s foundation in 1923, until Mircea Lucescu brought the glory days back at the end of the 1990s, Rapid won only one league title, in 1967. Even during their original purple patch just before the Second World War they could not finish better than runners-up. But some consolation was offered by the nine Romanian Cups won in that time, including six in a row from 1937 to 1942. Between 1998 and 2007 they added two more league titles and four more cups. Which makes the club something of a knockout specialist. Ever since their first Cup final, in 1935, ended 6-5 after extra time.
Last season, after rebirth under the name Academia Rapid, the team won the Bucharest regional cup, in their fourth encounter with arch rivals CSA Steaua of the season. This victory qualified them for the national edition of the Cupa Romaniei this term. Having overcome fellow third-tier sides Viitorul Domnesti, Bragadiru and Alexandria in the competition since the summer break, a fortnight ago we gathered at the shrine to see our boys cause an upset against Daco-Getica Bucuresti, a club which last season (while called Juventus) was playing in Liga 1. A demonstration of superiority over such opposition encouraged confidence ahead of the draw for the fifth round, when the top division teams get involved.
We could have come out of the hat paired with Dinamo or FCSB, CFR Cluj, U Craiova, or a Poli Timisoara. But no, our fate at this point was to meet another third division club. The historically inevitable giant-killing would have to wait until the last sixteen.
The paraphernalia of the cup are paraded on the pitch for our benefit – or possibly that of the TV cameras. This consists of a big coloured circle a bit like the Champions League one, manipulated by a gang of kids, and some neater than usual adverts on the hoardings. Behind the main stand opposite us, the sun prepares for a stunningly beautiful exit.
Straight from the kick-off, the visitors – who are clearly not here to make up the numbers, or simply to enjoy the occasion – are playing with confidence and an easy familiarity. They have better skills, passing and movement than any opposition I’ve seen here for years – including CSA Steaua last year and Daco-Getica last time out. This impressive competence might be explained partly by the fact that their veteran midfielder Constantinescu has over 200 Liga 1 appearances under his belt, while defender Savin played at Rapid in Liga 1 a few years ago alongside Pancu, Draghia and Iacob, all three of whom are now back with the hosts. Iacob is the only one who starts: Pancu is still crocked, while goalie Draghia is – fatefully – on the bench.
Romanian politics’ main protagonist, boss of the ruling PSD party Liviu Dragnea, professes to be a lifelong rapidist. Rumours have circulated that he is secretly part-financing the club. What is more certain is that the Sector 1 municipality, run by the PSD, has been involved from the start and is in discussions to buy a significant percentage of the shares. This has caused uneasiness in some quarters of the fanbase, but – perhaps not coincidentally – Giulesti is one of the few public places in the capital where you’re unlikely to hear anti-PSD chants. (Dragnea was recently sentenced to prison for abuse of office, which he adds to his previous conviction for electoral fraud. Barred from holding an official government position as a result, his shameless attempts to change the law on fitness for office to benefit himself and his cronies somehow polarises the nation.) Turris Turnu Măgurele, it turns out, is owned by Dragnea’s son Valentin. A small group of fans moves down the stand towards the pitch at one point to loudly repeat “fuck the PSD”, but it’s drowned out by the impressively marshalled chanting from the peluza to our right.
At half-time the match is goalless. The visitors have, if not exactly dominated, then certainly not allowed Rapid to play. A feeling of dread starts to envelop me – but then that happened against Daco-Getica too and we got through that. Just.
Maftei moves into a central midfield role when Bratu comes on in defence at the break. The old beardy one starts to really put himself about: in the absence of Niculae and Pancu he is taking on the burden of leadership. He flies into tackles, winds up and sprays the odd Hollywood pass, but Rapid’s attackers always come off second best against their markers both in the air and on the ground. Wide midfielder Goge is having a bad game. Matulevicius has showed poor positioning and a worse touch, but to be fair to him the service has been non-existent. The home side have not created a chance all game.
While Rapid prepare to take an attacking free-kick, we are treated to a two or three minute stoppage while the peluza chuck their fireworks onto the pitch and have a good old yell. This will prove to be the highlight of the evening.
The free kick comes to nothing. Every home attack has looked likely to produce a goal for the away side, such is their speed and the accuracy of the visitors’ passing. Rapid’s defence, moreover, is worryingly low on the Alan Hansen Defensive Continuum (see image). Sure enough, the first goal, when it comes, is a total shambles. Goalkeeper Ciuculescu has looked shaky a couple of times already. This time, it surely can’t be true, but it looks for all the world like he’s let a gently deflected Constantinescu cross through his hands and into the net. I can’t bring myself to look it up on YouTube to check. Whatever happened, it was a feeble goal to concede.
From this point onward Rapid crumble, possibly sensing that the one element of romance this season offers is disappearing out of view. Then, inevitably, Turris score once more late on, with a very fine move that cuts right through the wreckage of what had once been a Rapid defence. It’s two-nil, the home team are broken, and the game is gone.
In forty-seven matches since the foundation of the new club, the fans had witnessed not one single loss until tonight. Last year’s Liga 4 league table shows one defeat, but that was inflicted after the event by the league’s administrators, for fielding an ineligible player. What’s more, this is the first time I have witnessed any of the Rapids getting beat, since my very first game in the autumn of 2014 (against Dinamo in Liga 1). By golly they’ve played abominably on more than one occasion, but always against opposition unable to punish them.
After the game one fan site bemoans the state of the club. The 2018-19 kit was launched this week, after they’ve already played eight games. The flagship summer signing, a 22-year-old Brazilian who goes by the name of Robinho (but looks more like Ronaldo) will not be eligible until the spring, for work permit reasons. Tonight Turris showed why they are top of their series of Liga 3, and showed us why we rapidisti cannot expect everything to go our way. Last season was beautiful, dreamlike and confusing, with its stars of the past, its weird, cathartic pseudo-derbies of “Rapid” versus “Steaua”. Big crowds, tear gas, promotion, a cup win. Intimidating teams of amateurs and kids with our Romanian caps, league titles, massive beards (Maftei) and pigeon chests (Pancu).
Maybe this is where it stops being quite so much fun.