22 February 2015, 8.30pm
Stadionul Steaua, “Ghencea”. The attendance is reported on the Steaua website as 9,437, of whom 1,250 were away fans. Other sources report 5,000 in total, of which 2,000 were rapidisti. Rapid’s official allocation is 1,250 and it would be amazing if no cherry-and-white fans have bought tickets from Steaua outlets. After all, we did!
Round 18 of the 2014-15 season. The 112th meeting of the two sides; Steaua have won 43, Rapid 27.
STEAUA: Cojocaru – Papp, Luchin, Varela, Guilherme – Filip, Breeveld – Ad. Popa, Chipciu, Tanase – Tucudean.
RAPID: Buchta – Sapunaru, Borda, Cmovs, Josl – Gecov, Garai – Meulens, Pancu, D. Niculae – Benson.
We fuel ourselves with a Turkish kebab and an Efes under a see-through plastic awning in Lipscani before strolling across Piata Unirii to the tram stop. Of course, as kick-off time approaches, there is still no tram, so we summon a taxi. The driver chuckles when we say we are rapidisti. This is why: Rapid are useless. After 17 games they sit bottom of the table. They have scored seven goals all season. Given that six teams will go down this year as part of the league-shrinking plan, things look bleak.
Steaua, meanwhile, may be top of the league, Romania’s most successful club, and reigning champions, but they have serious problems of their own. In December 2014 the Romanian defence ministry, to which the football club belonged from its formation in 1947 until 1998, when it became an independent company, won a three-year-long supreme court case against the club. The court ruled that the Steaua brand created by controversial (and currently imprisoned) owner Gigi Becali soon after he took control in 2003 was illegal, and denied the club use of the crest and even the name. The delivery of tickets for this game to Rapid’s ticket office was delayed on Friday, reportedly because Steaua officials could not decide on what club crest to use on them.
The fans, many of whom were already exasperated by Becali’s lunatic behaviour – such as moving Steaua’s home games from city to city in order to haggle with the army over rent for the stadium, which it still owns – and by his disparaging attitude towards them, have finally snapped. Many are boycotting the team until… well, until they become less of a laughing stock, perhaps. For now, at least, those supporters turning up to games are cheering on “FCSB”.
Fewer stelisti, however, does mean that the curious neutral – we’ve decided to deny being Rapid fans for tonight, partly for safety, partly because they are rubbish and doomed to relegation – can rock up twenty minutes before kick-off and get tickets for Tribuna I (the posh-ish seats again), to see the big derby clash for the princely sum of 15 lei (just under 3 pounds). The route across an empty, puddly car park to D section takes us past a kiosk selling merchandise. I don’t remember seeing anything with the new logo on; it’s all the (presumably illegal) Steaua branding. The electronic ticket reader at the gate to the stand fails to read our tickets, but the steward takes pity on us and our terrible Romanian skills and ushers us through the turnstile anyway.
Inside the stadium, there is a sparse scattering of punters around the place. The capacity of Ghencea is apparently 28,000, and however many people are really here it’s unimpressive. Our stand is the fullest… except for one corner of the ground, in which the rapidisti are packed together, bouncing, chanting, waving banners and generally enjoying themselves in a way the Steaua fans can’t even seem to muster the enthusiasm to envy. We feel a twinge of regret at our disloyalty, but we’re among stelisti and don’t want to blow our cover, and in any case we’re only 3 or 4 rows away from the fence and therefore the target of plenty of flares our co-religionists are chucking. Riot police move in, persuade us to shuffle along, while their colleagues in the Rapid section throw their weight and batons around. Steaua supporters retaliate with chants about gypsies – Rapid’s stadium is supposedly in an area with a high Roma population, and opposing fans’ rhetoric regularly strays into outright racism and even incitement to genocide.
In our new spot, a bit further away from our gypsy brethren the firework throwers, we find ourselves standing next to someone familiar: it’s Florin Surugiu the Romanian international scrum-half! At the time he was second choice for the Stejarii, but during the 2015 World Cup he shot to fame by proposing to his girlfriend on the pitch after a game. We don’t talk to him. What if he doesn’t understand English? How embarrassing would that conversation be?! So, end of anecdote.
I remember virtually nothing about the first half. I was worried about flares and an escalation of the low-level baiting in the crowd into proper violence; at more than one point the scary ultras at the front of our section made as if to charge the penned-in away fans. And we were struck by the lack of ambience in the ground: it felt like the Steaua fans weren’t really that bothered. Perhaps because they expected to walk this match; but there were several banners decrying the management of the club down at the other end, and I think that attitudes towards the badge/name issue contributed to the subdued atmosphere in the stands.
Looking back at the video, it seems Steaua dominated the first 45 minutes. Papp headed against the post and several other chances went begging, though Niculae should have scored for Rapid in added time. Another great opportunity was missed by the visitors after half-time, but the home side’s frustration was building. Finally, an hour in, a simple ten-yard pass through the middle of Steaua’s half catches the defenders flat-footed and we have goal!, thanks to a cool finish from Czech midfielder Gecov, on debut. And that’s it until Tanase rattles the post for Steaua again five minutes from time. The home side look clearly superior but have been unable to unlock the opposing defence, and they are less driven than the visiting side. On 90 minutes Rapid defender Borda accidentally clips Steaua’s Stanciu’s heel just inside the area, and a penalty is demanded. But all that results from the ensuing melee is a second yellow card for the Rapid captain Sapunaru after he pushes the striker. Rusescu, in the kind of fetching face mask that will always remind me of mid-90s Gazza, has a couple of good chances to level the scores, but it finishes 0-1.
Totemic veteran striker Daniel Pancu, who scored the winner the last time Rapid beat Steaua, here at Ghencea in 2011, and who has recently been substituted, celebrates his team’s goal so forcefully on the touchline as to rile up the whole stadium and send the rapidisti into raptures. There’s really no need for that in the modern game: players surely shouldn’t be so bothered about what happens on the pitch, and they certainly shouldn’t be psychologically available for their team’s supporters to identify with them in any way.
It’s a strange feeling, walking to the tram stop after the game. We’d almost convinced ourselves that Rapid were not worth supporting. We don’t fancy 11am games on a Saturday in the second division, playing the likes of the Dinamo B-team and piddling provincial sides. But the presence and strength of feeling demonstrated by the “gypsies” in the corner of the stadium tonight has made me, at least, believe again that this may be the only team worth supporting, the only one that means anything any more. The tram is packed way beyond capacity, and we try to hide our mild elation at Rapid’s unlikely smash-and-grab. Perhaps they would survive! Well we should definitely go to Dinamo to collect the full set of big Bucharest club stadiums. Just to compare…
The bug was back.