According to the ‘official statistics‘ (Ed: last checked on 6 Oct 07), Romania is currently the 12th best side in the world. FIFA it seems are not deterred by the mere fact the national side has failed to qualify for the last three major tournaments. Indeed, you have to go back to the year 2000 to have any recollection of Romanian presence in one of the top events.
Admittedly, Euro 2000 was quite a success for the Tricolorii. Un-fancied to progress through the group of death — England, Portugal and Germany, before the outset, the boys in yellow gave a surprising account of themselves. Qualification through the group stages looked unlikely at one point; down 2-1 to England at half-time in their 3rd game. An attacking game plan in the second period, however, saw Romania capitalise on some dire England mistakes, and round out 3-2 winners courtesy of an Ioan Ganea penalty in the dying minutes. Hagi and his men couldn’t overcome an imperious Italian side, however, and with elimination came the sad retirement of the genius playmaker. Since then, things haven’t been quite so good.
Romania’s golden generation of players; the likes of Petrescu, Hagi, Raducioiu, Popescu and Dumitrescu were no longer capable of competing at the highest level. The problem was that very little quality was waiting in wings to replace them. Since 2000, Romania have yet to qualify for a major tournament. 2002 was a near-miss in a playoff at the hands of Slovenia, a side who seemingly were enjoying the greatest success in their history by qualifying for 2 major tournaments in succession. Romanian hopes dipped to new levels upon failing in the 2004 campaign. A run of indifferent results put paid to their chances, with Denmark and Norway securing the top two spots. 2006 was a continuance of the misery. Average results ultimately culminated in another finish of third behind the Czech Republic and Holland.
It must be said that Romanian supporters must have been going into the 2008 European Champion qualification campaign with very low optimism of the national side’s chances. So it also must come as a pleasant surprise to see the team top Group G with 20 points; with a gap of 2 points and a game in hand over neighbourly rivals Bulgaria in 3rd position. What is more important is that Head Coach Victor Piturca has seemingly developed a side that looks capable of replicating the swagger and class of previous years. The dearth of talent in Romanian football seems to be at an end.
A large proportion of this revival must come down to mercurial figure of Adrian Mutu, who has spearheaded the attack with the renewed belief that on his day, he can be one of the most technically proficient players in the world. For country and club (Fiorentina) he has shown some dazzling touch, and Romania’s immediate and future fortunes surely depend on the fitness and form of this intriguing character.
Other players have also started to blossom. In 2006, Caprian Marica earned a high profile move to the Bundesliga side, Vfb Stuttgart, after showing huge potential. It was disappointing then to see him struggle to come to terms with his new surroundings, earning criticism for some below par performances. More recently, however, the player has begun to show signs of forming a dangerous partnership with Mutu, and while not on the scoresheet as much as some would hope, is proving to be a useful foil in attack. The defence continues to have a steely, experienced shape to it. Razman Rat, Cristian Chivu and Cosmin Contra have a wealth of international and european club football under their belts.
Perhaps the national side have benefited in many respects from the healthy state of affairs at the two top Bucheresti clubs. Both Steaua and Dinamo have churned out and developed some interesting products, and as a result have recently been able to compete more consistently against some of the better sides across Europe.
It was not so long ago that both teams were squaring up to one another in the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. Indeed, Steaua Bucheresti could have booked a place in the final had they not contrived to throw away a 3 goal advantage against Middlesbrough. Nicolae Dica, Dorin Goian and Banel Nicolita have all emerged as top performers. Dica in particular looks the most impressive; a touch and awareness that makes him quite the creative force operating just behind the front two.
Romanian supporters have endured a period of suffering these last few years, lamenting the loss of some exceptional footballers to retirement. Nevertheless a new generation is emerging, and this team might just provide the success that the nation is craving. Qualification is still far from assured however. Next Saturday sees the top of the table clash as Mutu et al play host to the Netherlands. If Romania can avoid defeat in this game, they’ll edge a little bit closer to a return to the big time.