Teams also met in 2014 World Cup qualifying
9 October ~ Romania found themselves pitted against some familiar opposition when the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers was made. Greece, who beat them in the recent play-offs for the 2014 World Cup, were one, but of more interest to most people in this part of the world was the rematch with Hungary – who they play on Saturday. There is no great deep-rooted footballing rivalry between the teams, but there is an intense historical national one between the two countries.
History is, as ever, a matter of great dispute, but simply put, at the end of the First World War, the region of Transylvania became part of Romania, having previously been part of Austro-Hungary. By some calculations the 1.5 million Hungarians in Romania to this day constitute the biggest ethnic minority in Europe.
But the two football teams have not met that often and while both have had their periods of strength, these haven't coincided. As one might imagine Hungary won most of the meetings up to the mid 1980s, and since then Romania have been in the ascendancy. As any fan knows, it's difficult to sustain an intense footballing rivalry in a situation in which one team is clearly superior to the other. But in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, at least temporarily, the teams had attained a similar level of mediocrity, which in turn helped to make football a proxy for other issues.
The first match in Budapest was played behind closed doors, after anti-Semitic chanting at a previous match against Israel. The contest finished 2-2, in a game that Hungary really needed to win, and the lack of a hostile atmosphere may have been helpful to Romania. The late equaliser they scored sparked some rioting on the streets of Hungary's capital, but as no Romanian fans had travelled, this was something of a private affair.
The return game in Bucharest's new national arena, coming very close to the end of qualifying, was even more crucial. Both teams needed to win to stave off a resurgent Turkey, and the importance of the game added an extra level of spice to the nationalist context which inevitably formed the backdrop to the media coverage. A train load of black-shirted thugs associated with the neo-Nazi Jobbik party in Hungary proceeded to smash up downtown Bucharest (the police seemed somewhat taken by surprise by this, which given the way the media whips this stuff up really should not have been a shock).
From the other side, in the packed stadium, blocks of Romanian fans held up signs simply bearing the number "1918", and many chanted "Hungarians out of Romania". The match itself was something of a damp squib, with Hungary conceding a soft goal three minutes in and never looking like recovering. Romania ran out 3-0 winners and a month later had wrapped up second spot – which they then wasted with two impotent performances against Greece in the play-offs.
Now the teams meet in Bucharest again, in qualification for Euro 2016. Signs are already that we have gone back to a state of inequality – Romania opened the campaign with a 1-0 away win to group favourites Greece, while Hungary, having dumped Sandor Egervari, the most effective coach they've had for years, reverted to their form of the last couple of decades with a home defeat to Northern Ireland. Egervari's replacement, Attila Pinter, lasted just that single game to be replaced "on a temporary basis" by Pal Dardai.
It's difficult to see beyond a fairly comfortable home win. Having a competitive and meaningful fixture between the two sides had a lot going for it, but on the plus side, the return to one-sidedness means we're unlikely to see repeats of last September's ultra nationalist involvement. Andy Hockley