Guest writer Iain Pearce contributes the first of a series of articles from his recent five month tour around Eastern Europe. How about a Bucharest derby for starters?…..
Steaua Bucharest 1 v 0 Rapid Bucharest (24.09.2012)
In the footballing universe some words are almost inseparable. The Maracanã is Brazil, Geoff Hurst is 1966 and John Terry is, well, you get the idea. Think of Romanian football and the name of one team springs out almost automatically: Steaua.
Steaua Bucharest have won more Romanian league titles than anyone else, over forty percent of the country’s population are said to be supporters of the club and, perhaps most impressively of all, in 1986 they became the first Eastern European club to lift the European Cup.
With all that to mentally chew over I couldn’t leave Romania without seeing a Steaua match and as if any extra incentive were needed, the game was to be against city rivals Rapid.
Last week I’d been to watch Rapid and the fans I had met there were predictably dismissive of their neighbours, or the ‘peasants’ as they were constantly referred to as. But here’s another footballing association for you- when swotting up on Romanian football you generally don’t have to read too far before stories of violence start to repeatedly crop up.
The fifteen minute walk from the metro station to the National Arena quickly illustrated that Steaua’s peasants had their pitchforks out. I very accidentally made the trip with a group of several hundred of the people you see on Panorama documentaries. The group’s members were young, male, tattooed and shirtless, but most alarmingly of all carrying menacingly long flagpoles without the flags. I was keeping my head so far down it was scraping along the pavement.
Flag poles o’clock!…
This week’s trip to the National Arena couldn’t have been further from the previous weekend’s tepid affair with Dinamo. Three sides of the 55,000 seater were approaching full, while high up above one goal about 3,000 Rapid fans (see below), all in matching white t-shirts, were carefully cordoned in by the police. The section below them was empty except for the spectacle of my walking buddies in the so-called Curva Sud.
The Rapid fans in matching shirts in the upper tier, the crazed Steaua fans below them…
Steaua are very much the haves, Rapid the have-nots and the home end also had a giant flag depicting a hooligan to go along with their prematch card display. The game and the fans got things off to a pulsating start, Steaua were making and missing more chances but their opponents too were breaking with crisp passing and looked capable of causing an upset.
But despite how captivating the play was in the first half, it was off the pitch that it was even harder to take your eyes off. The Rapid fans up high were singing and chanting merrily, whilst the Curva Sud Steaua ultras below them were unfurling inflammatory banners insulting their neighbours, waving their flags and setting off booming fireworks. Midway through the half two booms were fired simultaneously, that was the sign.
The entire hoard of shirtless ultras bombarded their way up the steps into the concourses and towards the Rapid support. A handful of away fans less determinedly tried something similar but were held in by the surrounding riot police. For a minute or two the lower tier was deserted and only the distant battle cries gave a hint of what was going on. Evidentially unsuccessful the Curva Sud returned gradually but noticeably smaller in number, whether that was because some were apprehended or they instead went to stalk the car park I’m not sure. Either way, it made for a staggering and intimidating spectacle.
Fortunately, the second half saw a reduction of ferocity in the stands and happily it was between the lines that the pressure was really beginning to be cranked up. The Steaua support was getting increasingly agitated as more free headers and gaping goals were missed. Long before the hour mark Rapid had given up on attacking and were looking to perfect the skill of wasting as much time as possible without getting booked- as well as suffering uncanny levels of injury and cramp.
With ten minutes to go the post was thwacked, later still a loose back pass left just the keeper to beat, which he wasn’t. On the fifth of the five minutes to be added on the stage finally became set: free kick, central, twenty-five yards out. Forty thousand sharp intakes of breath as the ball arrowed over the wall and the same amount of despairing moans as it smacked back off the bar and the off-balance arriving attacker could react only quick enough to head the rebound wide of the open goal.
The home fans had long realised fate’s cruel plan for the evening, but all hope was now gone, and Rapid’s left back was down injured again. Limping off as the Steaua support streamed out the vacant Rapid left was now stormed into by Alexandru Chipciu who cut back to captain Alexandru Bourceanu who stroked home the last kick of the match and sent the National Arena into a pandemonium that its short history can’t have seen the like of before. Steaua had earned their victory several times over, but the heart really went out to the suddenly silent Rapid support.
All round one of the most incredible football matches I’ve ever witnessed, and that late goal didn’t half make the walk back to the metro a darn sight more comfortable.
Steaua rarely sell out the National Arena when they play their bigger games there, even this derby wasn’t filled up, so except for games with Dinamo (the bigger city rivals who are also currently using the National Arena on a semi-permanent basis) you’ll have no problem turning up before the game and picking up a ticket in the kiosk at the entrance to the stadium. The stadium is not miles out of the city and a fifteen minute walk from the nearest subway station, Piaţa Muncii. Allow yourself some time to get there though, especially for big games as the police presence slows everything down a bit.
The only word of warning I would offer is that if the kick off is late be sure to get a move on after the game because the subways and most of the buses back into the city centre stop after midnight and, believe me, the hour-long walk back into town isn’t one you particularly want to do in edgy and unlit Bucharest.