vineri, 19 aprilie 2013

Biggest game

I like Rowanne, I did since the day I've met her. Despite her poor choice of a favourite team, when it comes to football she's got the right sort of passion, the passion that could move mountains and fulfil dreams. This article is for her, in response to the following facebook message:"Can I ask you a favour? One of my br colleagues is doing a piece on games from a fans pov and he's missing an Eastern European influence. Could you possibly knock up about 200 words on the biggest Steaua game you've attended?" Well, Rowanne, it's more than 200 words, I tried to give you more to choose from.

The biggest Steaua game I ever attended... this is like asking who's the most beautiful woman in the world or what's the best car. One can have favourites, but in the end you can't really tell.

The first big game that comes to mind is 1-0 against Southampton in 2003; then 1-1 against Liverpool the same year, both in the UEFA Cup. The next few years good performances kept pouring in. The UEFA Cup match against Valencia in 2004 stands out: having lost 2-0 in Spain to the trophy holders, recent winners of the European Super Cup and a team ranked at number 1 by UEFA coefficients, managed by a then very fashionable Rafa Benitez, Steaua looked like an easy prey. Despite the hopeful media hype, not a lot of people in the stands in that cold, rainy February night in Bucharest expected our guys could go past the first knock-out stage of the competition. Qualifying from a tricky group was enough of a performance and we were there merely to congratulate Walter Zenga and his players. And of course, because we were always there. However, despite not getting the much expected early goal and despite the 0-0 at half time, Steaua managed to push for extra time after two second half goals by Andrei Cristea. By the time of the penalties, the psychological gap between the teams was so big, there could only be one winner. I wonder if there's a point in saying anything about locking up down town Bucharest until morning, getting home drunk two days later, or calling all my friends in the middle of the night. Not that anyone was sleeping anyway. All of these have happened, but the emotion of the night is not brought back by merely recollecting the facts. I doubt it can ever come back.

Sure, we were knocked out by Villareal the following round, but by that woke no one up from the dream. And I bet none of the 25.000 people that waited two hours in the blistering snow for a game that was never going to happen regret it.

Things went on upping next season. The decade-old Champions League dream still eluded us, but Steaua marched gloriously through the UEFA Cup group, winning it undefeated, with a 4-0 hammering of RC Lens the icing on the cake. I remember that game well. We stopped a shooting day of a multi-million dollar budget film early to get to it. We had 11 of the English guys in the crew with us. Gary Pocock, big Spurs fan, told me after that game: “I have been to many stadiums, all around Europe, but what I have seen last night was the best atmosphere I witnessed in my life.” The next day, some of those 11 were sporting Steaua shirts.

When European spring came about in 2005 the upgrade to Ghencea Stadium forced Steaua to play on National Arena, some 5 miles away. And I remember the each of the bi-weekly 5-mile pilgrimage. 0-0 against Herenveen, followed by 3-1 in Netherlands. 0-0 against Betis Sevilla, followed by 3-0 in Spain. 0-0 against local arch-rivals Rapid on the back of a 1-1 away draw. The only win, and the most memorable game of the campaign was 1-0 against Middlesbrough in the semi-final. We could smell European glory, and the 55.000 at that game joined forces to display just one, gigantic word: THE FINAL. It was not going to happen, and after the psychological breakdown on Riverside where we lost 4-2 we had to watch FC Sevilla lifting the trophy.

Nevertheless, there were more than 55.000 trying to attend the game against Standard Liege 3 months later. So much more that about 5.000 were left at the gates. After 10 years, Champions League football was going to happen again. I remember a few things from that game. I remember one banner. They're always as funny as they are politically incorrect: “Bonjour! Belgian pedophiles on tour”. I remember our two goals. But most of all I remember the torches. Once the Champions League qualification was sealed, they started. It was forbidden, of course it was forbidden. No one protested though. The match programme, distributed for free before the game, made for some great torches. Must've been about 20.000 of them. Quite a sight.

And I remember going to the first my first Champions League game. Those Fors cardboard cutouts above the turnstiles looked like the gate to Neverland. Ce sont les meilleures equipes... We were up against the best and, by God, did we enjoy it! Sure, nothing ever came out of it, and we are still to qualify for the Champions League knock-out stage, but no one can take away the memories: visits by Olympique Lyonnais, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and the likes. Record away turnout at the Santiago Bernabeu. About 25.000 Steaua fans, more than even Barcelona or Atletico produce there. One unlucky ball away from drawing with the best team in the history of the game on their turf.

Oh, there were high and lows. It's always like that. It was sad going out to Chelsea in Europa League earlier this year, but how can we not be proud after dominating the Champions League holders three halves out of four? As for that Champions League knock-out stage qualification, not to worry. It will come. There's always next year.

I know, I spoke exclusively about European games. Of course there have been memorable domestic games. Plenty of them. However, it's different in the home league. We know we're the pick of the crop. It's in Europe we can really measure our strength. And only against the very best.