18 May ~ A 2-1 home win on Sunday against closest challengers FC Timisoara handed Otelul Galati the Romanian league championship title with a game to spare. It has been a fantastic season by the club, and they have led the league practically from beginning to end with only a little wobble a month before the season's end, allowing Timisoara to catch them and bring the season to this exciting climax.
Galati's squad is made up almost entirely of Romanian players (very unusually for top teams in this country), many of whom have emerged from the team's youth academy. They have been expertly coached by Romania's most capped footballer, Dorinel Munteanu, who England fans are likely to remember for volleying home the equaliser after Nigel Martyn's weak punch in their Euro 2000 encounter. Munteanu is also one of the vast number of coaches sacked by Steaua Bucharest's megalomaniac owner Gigi Becali over the last few years.
From the steel-producing city of Galati in the east of the country, where the Danube turns into a delta, Otelul – the name actually means "steel" – also become the first team from the region of Moldavia to win the title. This victory seems to be yet another indication of a wider trend in Romanian football. While many European leagues seem to be reducing to a core of two or three dominant teams, the net seems to be casting ever wider in Romania. In the 56 seasons between 1951 and 2007, Steaua and Dinamo won the league 41 times between them. In the four seasons since then, the provincial teams seem to be taking over with CFR Cluj (twice), Unirea Urziceni and now Otelul all being debut winners.
With another pair of provincial teams, Timisoara and FC Vaslui, guaranteed to round out the top three this season, it seems that the traditional power base of Romanian football is well and truly shifting. The national media would still have us believe that the real story of interest is still to be found in Bucharest (this season's usually ignored cup final will be contested between Steaua and Dinamo, a match-up which has already generated far more media bluster than last night's title decider).
It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue and whether young fans in the provinces will, as a result of such successes, start choosing to support their local team, rather than Steaua or Dinamo. It will also be interesting to see whether any of the new champions can sustain their achievements – one cautionary tale already this season is the relegation of Urziceni, champions two years ago and runners-up from last season (and therefore Champions League entrants this season). With CFR Cluj also having a bad year and never getting above mid-table, the league in Romania has never been more open. Andy Hockley