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June 30, 2022

Mess outside the pitch

Romanian football has been a battleground for years. Not one set on the pitch, unfortunately, but outside it most of the times, where fair play and respect are the words missing from the vocabulary of those involved in the war of words.

Who are the characters that contaminate sportsmanship, decent rivalry? There are plenty of them. Some will point the finger at team fans, who provided countless evidence of uncivilised and downright primitive behaviour. The hate and fierceness shown by ‘ultras’ – a word aiming to define the diehard fans, a liability for their favourite teams actually – make them into a genuine cancer of stadiums. Few are those still daring to take their wives, girlfriends or children to watch a football game at the stadium. Invectives and violence are topical and you’d better stay clear of stadiums in Romania in general and those in Bucharest in particular.

Steaua has been sanctioned by the UEFA and the Romanian Football Association (FRF), which led to the team playing several games behind close doors. The latest, and the most telling example, may be that of the Dinamo Bucharest ‘fans’ who put their favourite team in a position even worse than that of their rivals in the capital. In the first leg of their Europa League playoff game against Slovan Liberec, Dinamo were two goals behind. On 88 minutes, fans broke the fence surrounding the pitch and invaded the field. The European football body has fined the home team, obviously, who also have to play the next two or three games at home behind closed doors, depending on how fans behave. Even worse, the match was forfeited 3-0. Everything seemed to be lost for Dinamo this season.

And then, the miracle happened. In the second leg away, Dinamo managed to score thrice without conceding a goal, entered extra time, won on penalties eventually and made it into the Europa League groups. Their extraordinary deed aside, difficult to predict before the second leg game, the team qualifying is seemingly a slap in the face of the so-called fans that all but cancelled the team’s chances to go further in the competition. This time, the effort on the pitch, true sportsmanship won against violence. Dinamo showed ultras that victory is won on the pitch and not by means of primitive displays worthy of The Middle Ages. And now yet another slap in the fans’ face, as the team will have to play the next two home games, against Panathinaikos Athens and Galatasaray Istanbul, behind close doors. What the hooligan fans have gained from it actually?

Violence in the stands is not a strict particularity of Romanian football. There are scores of similar examples across Europe, South America and other continents as well. About two decades ago, British teams were suspended from European Cups because of the violent conduct by fans. However, I don’t believe that in Romania, fans are the only ones to blame. The games in the domestic championship are preceded by inflammatory statements made by club owners, club directors and even coaches. The hate and rage in the stands is compounded on the one hand by the endless squabbling and the invectives traded off by club leaders, and on the other, by the all but continuous contesting of refereeing, which leads to perpetual, yet most of the time groundless, fretting and frustration vented by fans.

Yes, to a good extent, the mess outside the pitch is to a large extent to blame for the sad state of Romanian football. I say ‘’outside the pitch’ since many of the club owners have nothing to do with football, or if they do, they only make the matters worse. The case of the owner of FC Arges – Cornel Penescu – arrested for bribing referees and trying to meddle with game results, seems to be the most telling. The ‘suitcase’ case two years ago, which involved Steaua financier Gigi Becali, has not yet been elucidated by prosecutors, even less so by the justice system. Further more, the man involved, one of Romania’s richest, came to believe he is a sort of opinion-maker in the world of football. Private televisions upstage one another inviting him at live talk shows, despite his words being hardly beyond spelling book level. Not later than last Friday, during the Europa League group stage draw, Gigi Becali expressed his view on the chances of the four Romanian teams qualified in this stage of the competition, with the draw itself taking the back seat…

Yet, Gigi Becali is not the only club owner or club leader with a shady past and present, as he is in a league with those at CFR Cluj, Universitatea Craiova, FC Vaslui, FC Brasov, Rapid Bucharest, Unirea Urziceni, Gloria Bistrita and others. Much could also be said of the mix of physical and verbal violence, with M.M. Stoica, president of Unirea Urziceni, a case in point. A former head of Steaua, he descended from the box during one of the team’s home matches to kick a swearing fan. Rowdy conduct has gained increasingly more room in football, and not only. Political debates in this country are not much more high-minded either, with talks that should focus on ideas and doctrines ending up in slum speak.

As to the Romanian football governing bodies – FRF and the Professional Football League (LPF) – they are more interested in cashing on fines than on fighting rowdy behaviour. How could this be different with the heads of the two institutions bearing such nicknames as ‘Godfather’ and ‘Corleone’ respectively?

There is still a glimmer of hope in such sports phenomenon being sanitised, partially at least. Maybe the victories on the pitch, where the true achievements are made, will positively influence both the fanatical supporters and the flawed football leaders… While such chances are minimal, we should say, hope dies last …

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