Red Dogs. Red Dragons. From TNS to Bucharest.

Rom 3

Writer Tim Hartley shares a weekend stroll through Romanian football….

Gloria Buzau 0 v 2 Academia (10.04.2015)

Dinamo Bucharest 2 v 0 Rapid Bucharest (11.04.2015)

It was football trip I could frankly have done without. It was 6-15 a.m. and we had just got off the overnight train from Chisinau to Bucharest. We’d had some sleep in the well-worn and overheated carriage, but not much. We were dirty, tired and hungry. Time for a pick me up. The guy in the café at the Gare de Nord spoke very good English and was curious about my Football Association of Wales jacket. It had been a week since we’d played Israel and I was still basking in our 3 – nil victory in Haifa. He pointed at the red dragon crest on the jacket.

“Where you from? he said as he served our thick strong coffees.

“Wales. Țara Galilor?” I’d learned that much Romanian during our stay.

“Ah, yes. Wales. You know TNS?” I looked bemused. He repeated one by one, “T.N.S.”

“Of course we do,” said my son Chester, amazed that a random Romanian would have heard of the Welsh Premier League let alone any of its top teams. We have a prepared spiel when anyone hears we are from Wales. It goes like this, ‘You know Gareth Bale? Ryan Giggs? John Charles?’ And if all else fails we have Tom Jones to fall back on.

“They are always champions,” replied our new friend and then grinned. “My top team. In all my bets I include TNS, Barcelona and Bayern. They are all good. Always win and always score lots of goals. They are very good for my accumulators,” he said and laughed like a drain.

“It’s not good if the same team wins every year,” said Chester. I think that he meant Man United as much TNS.

“Mmm,” said the waiter, “Every country has its problems. We have a big problem here with Roma. You know – the gypsies. Always trouble.” What a pity, I thought. He was such a nice guy. I caught my wife Helen’s eye. I could read her mind. She was almost mouthing to me, “Plonker,” but was also urging us not to get into a fight this early in the morning. And so we left the café, the waiter and his prejudice but still stunned that the international language of football now includes the words ‘Welsh,’ ‘Premier’ and ‘League’ as well as ‘T,’ ‘N’ and ‘S.’

The slow train from the capital took some two hours to reach Buzau. But we were determined not to miss the match of the day. Second versus fourth in the Romanian League, er, Division Two. It was Gloria Buzau versus Academia Arges from Pitesti at the Gloria Stadium. Kick off for all the matches on this orthodox Good Friday was 11 o’clock.

It didn’t feel like a holiday in Buzau but then I’m not sure we would have known the difference. It was just gone nine when we arrived and it was certainly bustling as we walked from the station towards the main square. The ornate French or Austro Habsburg architecture with elaborate reliefs and detail ended abruptly as brutal Soviet office tower blocks enclosed three sides of the main square.

There were noticeably more Roma here than in Bucharest. They had a distinct physiognomy and dress which meant they stood out from the crowd. The older women wore patterned headscarves and ankle length wrap around skirts.

We stopped for breakfast at a café overlooking the market which was teeming with fruit and veg. Being Easter, every other stall seemed to be selling candles in red perspex holders which the faithful were carrying in the direction of the main church.

At the next table to us in the café sat the mother of one Roma family. She was wearing a shocking pink outfit and had worked her hair into waist length plaits on either side of her head. Into the bottom of the plaits, she had knotted coloured threads of red and blue. It was difficult to know what was hair and what was cotton. Was it a headdress? Had they come to church for Good Friday? I don’t know but it was a very striking pose. Three generations sat at the table, enjoying a Roma day out to town I suppose. A normal family doing normal stuff.

Lying in the lap of another woman her young son played a noisy game on his mobile phone. A middle aged man, the father perhaps, stood in a leather jacket and flat cap smoking behind them whilst the grandfather sipped a small brandy glass. There was certainly no ‘problem,’ no ‘trouble’ here as our friend in Bucharest had suggested. But as it was ten o’clock in the morning, I did say to Chester, “I don’t think he’ll make the game somehow.” He pointed to my breakfast pint of lager and said, “and how about you?”

The Gloria Stadium is a lovely ‘square’ bowl with seats running uninterrupted all around it though today the crowd was small. Behind one goal stood the Buzau ultras, about 30 in all. Two lads swung huge banners while their girlfriends sat dangling their legs over of the wall at the bottom of the stand. They tried to whip up some sort of atmosphere. The chants repeated ‘Gloria, Ultras,’ and ‘Buzau’ in different combinations but with a total crowd of some 400 in an 18,000 capacity stadium they were never going to make much of an impression.

Rom 5

The words Gloria Buzau were picked out in the main stand opposite in the club’s blue and red colours. Chester loves Eastern European floodlights, like we used to have not so many years ago and in this department the Gloria Stadium did not disappoint. The whole place was open to the elements and the sun and rain had turned the red seats a rather sad washed out pink.

Rom 2

Jendarmerie and a row of private security men heavily kitted out in riot gear moved in to guard the entrance to the tunnel. They had been in charge of frisking us on the way in. I wondered whether this way over the top security was a throwback to communist times. In a one party state with no freedom of expression any major gathering of people, and that basically meant football grounds, had the potential for protest and was heavily policed. I guess the thinking went, ‘well, they have the numbers, all they need is a cause.’ And boy, didn’t the Romanians under Ceausescu have cause.

Yet there wasn’t a hint of aggro. In fact, the security guys in their pseudo military uniforms and body armour all left at half time. Chester and I decided to stretch our legs and followed them thinking they may have been monitoring a group of hooligans who had gone looking for the opposition. Was there one hell of a fight going on outside? It seemed unlikely as there was no sign of any Academia support in the ground. The heavies crossed the road and came back, with cups of coffee!

Rom 4The game though was a dour affair with poor decision making by both sets of players; wayward passes and dreadful playacting when anyone was tackled. Chester and I tried to compare it with what we watched at home.

“Welsh Prem?” I ventured.

“Well, I saw a League One game earlier this year and it was better than this,” countered Chester. We settled on Conference standard.

The second half offered the same drab fayre as the previous 45. Academia scored with a scrappy header from a deep corner. There was more play acting before a glorious volley from 25 yards sealed victory for the visitors. Most of the crowd started to leave before the final whistle and there was some abuse from the ultras directed at the home bench. Three or four players took their chances and went over to thank the Gloria faithful. And that was that.

The next night in Bucharest was a very different affair. OK, so it did not involve Steaua but it was a Bucharest derby. Rapid versus the ‘Red Dogs’ of Dinamo.  Chester had done his homework and he marched us onto an underground train and across the city to the Stadionul Dinamo. It was set in a hollow off a busy main road and was a rather pleasant place with a cluster of trees behind one side.

“It’s a bit quiet here,” I said. “Kick off’s in an hour or so and it’s a bit, well, quiet.” There was no-one hanging around, no ticket booths or stewards or anything. I asked the lonely guy on the gate who had ignored when we had walked past him to the wire fence at the back of the stand what was going on. “Where’s the game? Rapid?” “Not here,” he said. “You must go to the Arena Nationala.” Oh dear.

Rom 8Dinamo’s ground, we learned later, was not up to the required standard, and the game had to be played in the national stadium. We got back on the tube and eventually found ourselves walking alongside the Dinamo fans through a very pleasant suburb to the stadium. No mistake this time.

Founded in 1948 Dinamo were the sports club of the Romanian Ministry of the Interior. In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolution there was an attempt to abandon the name as it had become associated with Romania’s secret police, the Securitate. ‘Unirea Tricolor,’ the name of a pre-World War II Bucharest team, was briefly adopted but it didn’t catch on and so Dinamo continue to be Dinamo.

Rapid were the team of the workers and are the oldest of the Bucharest big three, having been founded in the 1920s by workers at the Grivita works in the north west of the city. Interestingly, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Romania’s brutal communist leader who led the country from 1947 to 1965, organised a famous strike in the same rail yard in 1933 which led to his arrest and imprisonment.

It may have been a legacy of these old communist antagonisms but there was an even stronger police presence at the National Arena than we had witnessed in Buzau. We were all frisked at the turnstile and Helen had her bag searched. The lady security guard took a fancy to her Mac ‘Limited Edition’ lipstick and confiscated it. I have no idea of the significance of Mac or indeed the ‘Limited Edition’ but Helen was tamping. “Three quid for a ticket to get in and I lose a £25 lipstick. This better be good.” And as a spectacle rather than for the football, it was.

The impressive Stadionul National in Bucharest (photo acknowledgement: UEFA)

When we bought our tickets at the booth outside the main stand the guy asked us where wanted to sit. “Where the noise is,” Chester said, excitedly. “Hmm,” was the response, and he cast an eye over our little family, “with the hooligans then.” And so we joined the 2,500 or so Dinamo faithful behind the goal. In terms of the supporters it was basically us against their crowd behind the opposite goal. There were very few spectators in the stands along the sides of the pitch. Now when it is full with 55,000 Romanians the Arena Nationala must rock. But despite our best efforts the Rapid fans were penned into the opposite terrace, seemingly miles away, and the bowl felt just a bit hollow.

Rom 9

The game started well. An own goal gave Dinamo the lead on three minutes. Cue the first in a series of loud booms from the left hand side of the pitch. A crowd of about fifty ultras had been allowed pitch side. They were penned in on either side by the security bods and below them there was drop to the playing surface itself. But they threw firecrackers every few minutes onto the pitch with apparent impunity. We watched the tell-tale silver white light against the green for a couple of seconds before another flash and a bang echoed towards us. The players seemed oblivious to it all simply playing around and over the wispy trails of smoke.

In the second half ‘we’ scored again through Bogdan Gavrila. Our fans went mad and so did the opposition. As flares were lit opposite us the police launched the first of three baton charges. The crowd scattered and a handful made it to safety onto the next empty terrace. But the game carried on as normal. The threats and chants all seemed a bit pointless. We were miles apart and the stands around the Rapid section were completely empty. There were no other fans to attack. It could have been a training exercise for the police.

Rom 6As the game drew to a close Niculae, who’d had a superb game, was substituted and we all cheered his slow walk to the dugout. He high-fived his teammates and then jogged smartly down the touchline towards us. With an athletic leap he was up over the barrier and into the crowd below us. No official, no security man tried to stop him. Fans surged down towards him and he disappeared into a sea of red shirts and scarves. As things calmed down a little he re-emerged shoulder high while one fan after another took selfies with their hero.

Now in our country there would have been an FA inquiry and some serious tut tutting from Gary Lineker and the team at such rash ‘and potentially dangerous behaviour.’ Welsh Premier League it most certainly was not. But this was Romania and the bond between players and fans on this showing at least seemed to be still intact. What became of Helen’s expensive lipstick at the Arena Nationala that night however will remain a mystery.

You can follow Tim on twitter @timhhartley

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