The day we moved to Romania, was, as we have written about elsewhere, the day a goal by Dan Petrescu allowed Romania to beat England in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup. Petrescu was a Chelsea player at the time, so we were actually delighted with the result. Chelsea defeats England: that will do us.
As it turns out, England actually went further in that World Cup than the Romanians, who collectively dyed their hair yellow before disappearing without trace after a shockingly bad performance against Croatia. England famously went out on penalties (as always) to Argentina.
At the end of that tournament, however, when the points were tallied up and the statisticians had done their thing, the FIFA world rankings looked like this, with Romania ranked the 13th best team in the world, ahead of Spain:
A year earlier, in July 1997, Romania had been ranked even higher, 4th:
Today, Romania are ranked 52nd, ahead of Ukraine (on alphabetical order, we think) but below such footballing giants as Gabon and Armenia:
While we have neither the time nor the inclination to check, we doubt there are few national teams who have ever fallen quite so far. It is no surprise that the European Championships will begin on Friday in Poland and Ukraine without Romania. Since beating England (again) at the European Championships in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000, Romania have qualified for just one tournament: the European Championships of 2008, in Austria and Switzerland, where they made little impact.
At club level the situation is even worse. Since the European Cup became the Champions League in the 1990s, no Romanian team has ever made it out of the group stages, and now that the country’s UEFA coefficient no longer guarantees it a place in the group stages, it is highly likely that this year will see Romania’s participation in the European Cup end before the summer is out. Remember: in 1986 Steaua Bucharest won the European Cup, reached the semi-final in 1988 and the final in 1989. Of past winners only Nottingham Forest have fallen so far.
There is not much solace to be found in the country’s individual players, either. Look back at the 1994 team that made the quarter finals of the World Cup, almost every player was employed at a big European team. Gheorghe Hagi was at Barcelona, Gica Popescu at PSV Eindhoven, Ilie Dumitrescu was at Tottenham; Dan Petrescu of course was at that time playing for the biggest European side of them all: Sheffield Wednesday.
Today there are few household names in Romanian football, and, Cristian Chivu at Inter aside, none play regularly at big clubs. A young goalkeeper, Costel Pantilimon, is on Manchester City’s books, but he played just five games all season, none in the league. Adrian Mutu, an indubitably gifted player who has alas thrown his career out of the window on more than one occasion with controversial lifestyle decisions, has spent the past year in the wilderness, at little Cesena, in Italy, where he hardly played. Gabriel Torje, after a bright start, became equally invisible at Udinese, who now appear to want rid of him. This article by Romanian Scout Radu Baicu offers an excellent perspective on why so many Romanian footballers have, like Torje, failed abroad. Let’s hope Paul Papp, recently signed by Chievo, will fare better.
Yet it is at home that we must look for the roots of Romania’s footballing plight. At home, in the Liga 1, the corrupt, blighted, tainted Romanian first division.
It has always been so.
In the novel Fatherland, set in a world in which the Nazis won the war, author Robert Harris describes the importance of football results in German newspapers: ‘They were the only things people accepted as fact. If the front page said the army had defeated Russian terrorists nobody believed it. But when the back page said Hamburg had defeated Stuttgart 4-0 everybody understood it to be true.’
In totalitarian Romania, even the football results could be misleading. The story of Rodion Camataru’s 1987 Golden Boot, or the promotion to the first division of FC Scornicesti Olt, or the existence of zombie teams such as Victoria Bucuresti is evidence of that. We have long thought that there is a good book in the story of Romanian football during communism. When, in our retirement, we have the time, we may well research and write it.
But we digress.
It is the complete shambles that is football in the present that interests us today. For despite appearances – the 2012 Europa League final, held last month in the immaculate new Arena Nationala, for example – a shambles it is.
Once again, Romanian Scout has an excellent round-up of how the Liga 1 season ended. And that is only the beginning. After last year’s promotion/relegation fun and games this year has been equally jolly and unpredictable. FC Timisoara, relegated last season for misdemeanours, won Liga 2 Serie 2 and by all rights should be back in Liga 1. Alas they did not recieve a license to play in the first division and so will stay in the second tier. In their place come Gaz Metan Severin, who finished third in Liga 2 Serie 2. Cue outrage from FCM Targu Mures, who finished 17th – the last relegation place – in Liga 1. If last year’s rules had been applied Targu Mures would have remained in the first division. Targu Mures now claim that the Romanian FA is simply making up the rules as they go along, without rhyme or reason.
Who’d have thunk it?
One glimmer of hope for Romanian football comes from Hagi himself, whose youth project Viitorul Constanta will play in Liga 1 next year. Romanian Scout (where would we be without him?) has the full story.
We have long said that the state of Romanian football can be gauged by watching the sports news on television and applying a simple equation: The more time devoted to what the cretinous owners of the clubs say and do, the less healthy the game itself.
And right now, when the birth of a child of the owner of Dinamo Bucharest is considered sports news, you know the Romanian game is in deep, deep shit.