Football fever is gripping the nation. This is because both Rapid (hooray) and Steaua (boo, hiss) have reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. However, in a cruel twist of fate, the two have been drawn to play each other in the quarter final, meaning that rather than an exciting European away trip to Gelsenkirchen or St Petersburg or, errrm, Middlesboro, they don’t even get to leave Bucharest to play the tie. On the one hand this means that there will be at least one Romanian team in the semi final, so there is that advantage, but on the other it means that the excitement of European football is heavily diluted.
All the TV channels have been wall to wall football since even before the games last week in which Rapid (hooray) put out Hamburg, and Steaua (boo, hiss) put out Betis. Following the two wins, though and the subsequent quarter final draw, it has been never ending. I presume this will go on at least until the semi-finals, and should one of them actually make it to the final the networks will implode in an orgy of happiness and self-congratulation. It’s got to be rough if you don’t like football. Or possibly worse still if you support Dinamo. Basescu has been in on the act, showing up to watch a couple of the games in person, and then at the weekend inviting all the players to the Cotroceni Palace for a little get together.
Now, I have to say that the apparent interest and national feeling for Steaua baffles me. Even now, they are taking the lion’s share of the media coverage, and it seems from what I can gather that they are supported by most Romanians. Yet, when you look at their past (and even their present) it’s a wonder that they are not utterly despised by most of the country. To explain: Steaua were the team patronised by Ceausescu. They won most of the championships during his rule, got all the good players, and presumably got the benefit of a surprisingly large amount of refereeing decisions. (Romanians may be interested to learn that there are two things non-Romanian football fans know about Steaua – the European Cup win of 1984, and the whole Ceausescu/Securitate* connection). If I were Romanian I would hate Steaua passionately, and no amount of fawning media coverage would make me change my mind. Indeed, I do hate Steaua passionately, and I’m not even Romanian and didn’t know life under Ceausescu.
OK, you might be saying, Ceausescu’s dead, Steaua must be allowed to have a clean slate and be judged on their present day merits. Well, you might be right, but Steaua are now owned by today’s most repulsive man in Romania, Gigi Becali. He’s not Ceausescu, I’ll grant you, but given enough power I reckon he’d do a similar job. Why do I feel such disgust towards this man? Well he’s a fundamentalist bigot for a start (he once said that he had nothing against Jews as long as they converted to Christianity), and an egomaniac of the highest order (last year he commissioned a painting of the Last Supper with the Steaua team replacing the disciples and him in the Jesus spot). His money comes from dodgy dealings with the army (ie he buys stuff off them cheap, and sells stuff to them expensively – like a small scale Dick Cheney). He is on TV all the time, and for some reason then media seem to love him. He has openly expressed support for an extremist right wing Romanian organisation called Noua Dreapte, which is in favour of a return to the years between 1941 and 1944 when Romania was ruled by the fascist Antonescu* and his Iron Guard.
So, I, and any other neutral football fan from outside Romania, will obviously be supporting Rapid. They are the third club of Bucharest, and are so very definitely an underdog. They have a nice manager, Razvan Lucescu, who always comes across as an affable good bloke whenever I see him interviewed. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching them and willing them on as they have surprisingly beaten Feyenoord, Rennes, Shakhtar Donetsk, Hamburg and others. But above all, their hardcore fans are less obnoxious than Steaua’s, they are not owned by Gigi Becali, and it would make Nic and Elena turn over in their graves. Go Rapid!
PS One of the rumours surrounding the Ceausescu years is that after the 1984 European Cup final which Steaua won on penalties from Barcelona, the goalkeeper Ducadam refused to hand over the car that he won for being man of the match to Ceausescu’s son. In return for this act of defiance, the securitate broke his hands (obviously a big deal for a goalkeeper), and he never played top level football again. The official story is that he contracted some kind of blood disorder, and that is why he retired from the game. I have no idea which of these two stories is true, but the very fact that the first one exists and is believed by many will give you some idea of the way this country used to be run.
* Note that a number of factual errors have been pointed out to me in the comments below.