While we have certainly not been slow to criticise the cost of building Bucharest’s Arena Nationala – Romania’s new national stadium – we have to admit that we were rather excited ahead of last night’s Champions League game between Otelul Galati and Benfica, the second match to be played at the stadium, and our first visit. (The first, you will remember, was the Romania – France international, a farce owing to the poor state of the new pitch. The pitch played on last night was a different one, and while not perfect – those in new stadiums never are – it was a vast improvement on the original).
Anyway, it was very much a desire to see the stadium that brought us to the game, and we weren’t disappointed. It really is a job well done, if a job done late and way over budget. Unfortunately, the fact that Galati is more than 200 kilometres from Bucharest, as well as the mediocre nature of the opposition (Benfica have not bothered the latter stages of the European Cup for quite some time) meant that the stadium was barely a tenth full, if that.
Nevertheless, the stadium has much going for it.
Access by public transport is fairly good. We took the tram to Piata Muncii and walked the rest of the way, about ten minutes or so. There are plenty of entrances, all are well marked, security wasn’t heavy (although they did confiscate cigarette lighters: take matches next time) and finding your seat is easy. And what’s more – it is a real bonus this – nobody is likely to be in your seat.
One of the reasons we stopped going to football in Romania was the annoying tendency to find people in your seats, who refused to move. We once turned up at a Romania – Hungary game to be told that the ground was full. ‘So who’s sitting in our seats?‘ we asked. The fella on the door just laughed. So we ripped up our tickets, gave him a few lei and he let us in anyway. Those days, we are glad to report, appear to finally be over, at least at the Arena Nationala.
Smoking is banned at the new stadium, and the rule is strictly enforced. You can only smoke in the forecourt behind the seating areas. Try and light up anywhere else and you will be jumped on by security guards very quickly. As it was, hardly anybody had a lighter so nobody could light up anyway. One bloke had brought matches and at half-time ended up lighting the cigarettes of hundreds of people.
The other new rule which is strictly enforced is that sunflower seeds are also banned. Besides lighters, the receptacles at the main security check were full of bags of seeds. While we know that eating seeds at football matches in Romania is a tradition that goes back decades, it is a tradition we are glad to see the back of. Also banned at Brasov’s new ice rink, has the fightback against this curse taken a decisive step?
There is no alcohol on sale, just tea, coffee, non-alcoholic beer, cola, hot dogs and popcorn, which you buy with branded Otelul Galati tokens (a bit like at a concert). Drinks and popcorn are a decent enough price though: one five lei token for half a litre of cola, and the same for popcorn. That’s cheaper than the cinema. Toilets are immaculate, and in fact the whole stadium is almost too clean, too shiny and too new.
Which brings us to the stadium’s biggest problem.
Like most community-owned stadiums, the Arena Nationala is a soulless place. Belonging to the council and not one (or two) clubs, there is nothing to distinguish it from any number of stadiums around the world. Last night it lacked any atmosphere at all. A dull game (Benfica won 1-0) and wide spaces of empty seats didn’t help.
It is also of course a little sad that Otelul are forced to play their matches here. Their own stadium is a neat and tidy affair, which, packed with 10,000 or so locals would be a fearsome place for foreign teams to play. Alas it does not have the requisite commercial space for entertaining freeloaders that UEFA demand of Champions League stadiums.
So it is a qualified thumbs-up we give to Bucharest’s new toy. While it’s magnificent in design and execution, we will be back for the Otelul – Manchester United game in October, and we will be interested to see if it is as easy to get in and out when the place is nearly full.