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Power, corruption & lies in Bucharest: Why Steaua vs Dinamo is more than a game

In November 2002, FourFourTwo sent Jonathan Wilson to assess Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest: two Romanian giants determined to destroy each other

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Though Steaua had all but wrapped up the title, 2001’s Bucharest derby was nonetheless played out in the proverbial cauldron of hate. 

The stands at the Dinamo Stadium were packed to overflowing, the stairwells crammed, and firemen spent the entire game dousing flares hurled from the tribunes. In the end, they turned their hoses on the perpetrators, who, despite the raw April damp, stood defiant, clinging to the security fencing and hurling insults.

When Dinamo nicked the winner 10 minutes from time, there was a near riot. The red-and-white half of the city writhed in celebration. Meanwhile, those in the red-and-blue half pointed out that they were going to win the league anyway.

This year, with the two clubs apparently locked in an embrace of mutual destruction, the game has been scheduled for 9pm, just to make sure fans have time to get well and truly mullered by kick-off.

A derby destroying a country

Waiting for the train from Craiova that morning, FourFourTwo flicked through a Romanian sports paper, trying to make sense of a preview of the game. Your reporter's Romanian is limited, but the line comparing the derby to ‘Lewis-Tyson, Barcelona-Real Madrid, Schumacher-Schumacher’ needs little explanation.

A tracksuited figure – an off-duty croupier called Ascamio – asked for a light. Ascamio is a Universitate Craiova fan, but he, like most Romanians will be watching the derby: “They are great clubs,” he says, “but they hate each other. Their hate is consuming them, and they are destroying each other: that is why National might win the league.” 

They are great clubs, but they hate each other. Their hate is consuming them, and they are destroying each other

- Universitate Craiova fan Ascamio

Since 1982, only Craiova in 1989 and Rapid in 1999 have broken the Dinamo-Steaua duopoly. National have never won the title. “Victory for them,” Ascamio says, “would show that you do not need money to win. It would show that the days of corruption are over.” With average gates of around 2,000, National simply couldn’t bribe their way to the title, as Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid have all been accused of doing.

Riddled with coincidence and paranoia, Romanian football is sport as written by Thomas Pynchon. Conspiracy theories abound to such an extent that it seems there can be no such thing as a genuine cup upset or last-minute groin strain. The day before the derby, National only manage a draw at home against Sportul Studentesc.

Immediately there are suggestions that the fixers have been in, that Dinamo have paid off National. Yet the truth is that National just had one of those days, twice hitting the woodwork. The result leaves Dinamo needing a win to return to the top, with just three games remaining.

Crisis is an overused word in football, but the derby game is a meeting of two crisis clubs in a country that has, over the past decade, redefined the word crisis. The pair are seemingly intent on destroying each other, and Romanian football is in danger of going down with them.

There may have been a golden period without scandal between the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceauseseu in December 1989 and the hijacking of the game by mafia interests, but few seem able to remember it.

It's an open secret that Romanian football is dominated by the Co-operativa, a dozen clubs who exchange home wins in order to ensure that none of them are ever relegated

Under Ceausescu, the political will was everything; now, nothing matters but money. Corruption is endemic. For the best part of a decade, it has been an open secret that Romanian football is dominated by the Co-operativa, a collection of around a dozen clubs who exchange home wins in order to ensure that none of them are ever relegated.

Only when they are assured of their First Division status do they get round to deciding who wins the league and who qualifies for Europe. Indeed, it has become so pointless for teams from outside the Co-operativa to try to compete in the top eight that last season Baia Mare, after winning promotion from Division Two, sold their First Division status back to relegated Bacau.

A foggy history

After Gheorghe Hagi, Laszlo Boloni is the most capped footballer in Romanian history. Having virtually assured that Romania would finish second behind Italy in their World Cup qualifying group, and thus clinching a play-off spot, he quit as coach of the national team in June last year to take charge of Sporting in Portugal.

It is very sad, but the truth is that many people in Romania are very poor. Romanian football is also very poor – so perhaps there is corruption

- Former Romania manager Laszlo Boloni

“If you walk through Bucharest, you will see many bad things,” he says. “It is very sad, but the truth is that many people in Romania are very poor. Romanian football is also very poor – so perhaps there is corruption.

"When I was national coach, if I had found that one of my players was involved in the corruption, I would have expelled him from the side; but it is almost impossible to find out.”

Proof has always been the problem. Senior internationals such as Hagi and brother-in-law Gheorghe Popescu have made repeated calls for the Romanian Football Federation (FRP) to clean up the game; journalists for Prosponf and the Gazeta Sporturilor then make their accusations; but FRF president Mircea Sandu just wrings his hands, mumbling about lack of evidence and quietly forgets the whole thing.

Boloni is one of Romania's most iconic players

For years Romanian football plodded on, sinking deeper and deeper into the mire until, last November, balding Slovenia forward Milan Osterc knocked them out of the World Cup with a mis-hit cross that sailed over Bogdan Stelea and dropped into the far corner. An accidental hero if ever there was one, the unassuming Osterc became an overnight star in his homeland but his most lasting impact may prove to be in the country a few hundred miles further east.

NEXT: "We will shoot corruption dead. This is a war"