Despite going well in Euro 2000 qualification, scandal has hit Romania. Richard Augood reports
These are strange and troubled times for Romanian football. Yet just a couple of months ago everything seemed to be going so well. Romania were in a strong position in Euro 2000 qualifying group seven. On June 5th, Gheorghe Hagi, who had been back at his magnificent best with Galatasaray, was persuaded out of retirement for just one, very important, match. Inspired by Hagi, Romania beat bitter rivals Hungary 2-0. Almost unbelievably, this was the first time Romania had ever beaten the Hungarians in 20 games spread over 68 years.
The delirium prompted by the final whistle approached that of the collective national orgasm after the victory over England in last year’s World Cup. Prompted by television footage of demonstrations in all Romania’s major towns and cities, where thousands of people chanted “Hagi is the king” and “We want Hagi back”, Hagi did indeed announce his return from international retirement.
But then attention turned from the international game to its domestic cousin and things got very unpleasant. On the first day of the season Stefan Vrabioru, a midfielder with newly promoted Astra Ploiesti, collapsed on the field during the second half of a game at champions Rapid Bucharest. Vrabioru died on his way to hospital.
The first revelation to come out of the tragic affair was that Vrabioru was on his way to hospital in a van. To save around £15, wealthy hosts Rapid had neglected to have a fully equipped ambulance at the ground, as required by Romanian law. The official cause of death was a haemorrhage in Vrabioru’s stomach. An incriminating photograph was printed in the press appearing to show Rapid captain Nicolae Stanciu punching Vrabioru in the stomach during the match.
Then the drugs rumours started. It was announced that Vrabioru’s blood had contained traces of anabolic steroids, but in the form of a drug called methandienone, which is found in many over-the-counter medicines. The Rapid and Astra team doctors received bans of five years and life respectively, after it turned out that the Astra doctor wasn’t at the match and the Rapid doctor declined to accompany Vrabioru to the hospital in the van, described by the vice-president of the Romanian Medical Council as “the sort one would use to transport potatoes, sheets or perhaps a corpse”.
After imposing the bans on the doctors, the Romanian FA (FRF) completed their contribution to events by fining Rapid a nominal sum and ordering them to play their next home game at a neutral venue. This reluctance to take decisive action has been a recurring theme throughout the season.
The next scandal came two weeks later, with a weekend of truly unparalleled awfulness on the part of the referees. Among the biggest losers were First Division new boys Rocar Bucharest. They seemed to be heading to a comfortable victory away to Steaua before their second goal was wrongly ruled out, Steaua were allowed a clearly offside equaliser and were then awarded a last-minute penalty, a decision at which even the diving Steaua attacker laughed.
The next week, in protest, Rocar fielded their junior team against Arges Pitesti, a move which led the FRF, in a rare show of decisiveness, to award the match 3-0 to Arges, after the juniors had performed heroically to restrict their opponents to a 2-0 win. Rocar were joined in their protests by National Bucharest, who played wearing white armbands in protest at perceived injustices, and Rapid, who made a formal complaint to the FRF, accusing the referee of making “deliberately wrong decisions” during a 2-0 midweek defeat.
Also weighing in was former FIFA referee Ion Craciunescu, who said: “What goes on in our football is revolting. The club’s protest is fully justified. Romanian refereeing is in a deep moral crisis.”
It seems entirely possible that the FRF will have to repeat last year’s experiment of hiring a German referee for the title decider between Rapid and Dinamo Bucharest. On that occasion the action was taken to avoid any suspicion of favouritism after allegations had dogged the First Division all season. This time, though, they might have to do it because all their accredited Romanian referees are serving the suspensions that the FRF has distributed like party invitations in an attempt to mollify aggrieved clubs.
The most recent and most sinister manifestation of the FRF’s laissez-faire attitude came shortly after the Vrabioru affair. Prompted by the New York-based Anti- Defamation League, FIFA contacted the FRF to demand an explanation for the activities of the FRF vice-president and league president, Dumitru Dragomir. Accidentally or otherwise, the FIFA fax was sent to the offices of the daily newspaper Pro Sport before it was sent to the federation. The matter under discussion was Dragomir’s ownership of a weekly publication, Personal Attack, which regularly publishes articles full of anti-Jewish, Gypsy and Hungarian rhetoric.
When made aware of the FIFA investigation, Dragomir denied any involvement with the magazine’s contents and declared that after one particularly vile outburst in the magazine’s regular “Swastika” column last year he had sent a written apology to the Israeli embassy. The FRF president, Mircea Sandu, finally declared that there would be an investigation, without giving any idea of when the process would show any results. Then, astonishingly, he added “I told Dragomir that something like this might happen”, indicating that he was fully aware of Dragomir’s affiliations but simply chose to take no action himself. In the three weeks following the story’s appearance there has been no further mention of it in the media.
The latest alarm occured at a match between CSM Resita and Astra Ploiesti, when the home fans battled with police after starting up a chant of “We want to play in the Hungarian championship” and “Vienna is closer than Bucharest”. Resita’s Hungarian supporters have suffered from the increase in anti-minority violence that is breaking out at football matches, although the worst sufferers of this have been the many Gypsy fans of Rapid Bucharest. The FRF does not acknowledge that any such problem exists.
Instead, the federation is content to believe that as long as the national team keeps qualifying for the finals of major tournaments, then all is well. And even if Romania do lose out in the head-to-head with Portugal for qualification, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. For in failing to qualify, they may be able to rid themselves of the hated national coach Victor Piturca and give themselves a gloss of respectability. For waiting in the wings is Piturca’s predecessor, Anghel Iordanescu, whose reign as the national coach of Greece came to a swift end, but whose whiter-than-white image may just salvage the reputation of the FRF – without actually being able to do much to change its activities.
From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month