Europa League brings respite to Romania

Romanian football, beset by eccentric club presidents, crowd violence and financial difficulties, will enjoy a brief respite from its unhappy routine when it stages the Europa League final on Wednesday.

Bucharest's National Stadium, impressively rebuilt with facilities which put it on par with Europe's top stadiums, will host Spanish rivals Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid as they battle to win Europe's secondary club competition.

It will be welcome spotlight for Romanian football which has otherwise endured a miserable season with the national team failing to qualify for Euro 2012 and Otelul Galati out of their depth in the Champions League as they lost all six group games.

The country may not have a team at all in the Champions League group stage next season, having lost its right to an automatic place due to previous poor performances.

Romania's hopes that one of their clubs would reach the Europa League final also ended early with Steaua Bucharest, their last remaining representatives, losing to Twente Enschede in the round of 32.

The problems were even worse domestically.

Across the country, grounds are outdated, crowds sparse and the world players' union FIFPro says most clubs struggle to pay salaries.

KICKED OUT

Problems started before the season when FC Timisoara and Gloria Bistrita were both kicked out of the first division, Liga 1, when they were refused licenses due to overdue debts.

That also cost Timisoara, last season's runners-up, a place in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, where they were replaced by Vaslui.

It was even worse for Unirea Urizceni, who won the championship as recently as 2009, but who were not playing at all this season.

They were relegated last season, then barred from all competitions after failing to apply for a license.

Violence also reared its ugly head when a Petrolul Ploiesti fan invaded the pitch during a league game against Steaua Bucharest and punched a player to spark a mass brawl.

Dragos Enache was ordered to pay compensation of 50,000 Romanian lei ($15,155) to former Steaua defender George Galamaz who fractured his cheekbone in the incident which eventually caused the game to be called off after a half hour delay.

Petrolul were also ordered to play six home games behind closed doors.

Former European champions Steaua, currently fourth in the league, made more headlines thanks to the antics of flamboyant owner Gigi Becali, already on to his third coach of the season, than their form on the pitch.

Becali at one point announced plans to field a Romanian-only team next season.

"There were only Romanians in the team in 1986 and they won the European Cup, so why we should pay high salaries to foreign players and not win anything?" said Becali, a member of the European parliament.

The state-of-the-art national stadium is a far cry from most grounds in the country and earlier this year, the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) said it would impose tougher sanctions on clubs whose stadiums were in a poor condition.

"The future does not look very good. Some clubs are insolvent and probably it'll be difficult for them to continue," warned the FRF's licensing director Viorel Duru.

Even the National Stadium has not been without problems.

The planned inaugural match between Romania and Argentina at the start of the season was cancelled after the South Americans fired coach Sergio Batista.

When it did open with a Euro 2012 qualifier against France, the pitch cut up badly within the first few minutes, leaving huge divots in the field.

It has since been relaid.