Give us a Cluj
CFR Cluj 2-1 Pandurii Târgu-Jiu (28:08:10)
This is the part of the show where I get to take a back seat, and let someone who knows how to write take to the stage. Today, making his EFW debut is Nick Ames. Nick's day job is as a writer for Arsenal Football Club.
The waitress in balmy Piata Muzeului bears a striking resemblance to Jelena Dokic – and without the unnervingly obsessive father, you’d assume. My chances of finding out for sure are nipped in the bud fairly decisively. “You go dancing this evening?” she enquires in thick-frosted English. “Perhaps,” I reply evenly, “but I’m going to watch CFR first, so we’ll see.”
“You have come to Cluj to watch football....?” She tails off, says nothing more, regards me with the concerned disgust you might usually reserve for someone who leaves a copy of ‘A Journey’ open at May 12, 1994. She places my bottle of Ursus in front of me, frowning slightly. Twenty minutes later, her male colleague ventures forth to collect my six lei.
Perhaps I’d sold myself short. In a day and a half I’d already thoroughly combed Cluj-Napoca’s pleasant mixture of pretty churches, side streets and museums, all accompanied with the requisite sprinkling of dreadful Communist ephemera. I’d been down a salt mine and hiked 15km towards, up and back from a mountain gorge near the town of Turda, subsequently feeling pretty akin to the name. A chance meeting with some Americans had resulted in generous Ursus consumption, just five minutes from this very square, the evening before. So what could be done when there was just one thing missing?
I assume that the taxi driver is having me on when he responds to my request for the Dr Constantin Radulescu Stadium with a deadpan “You know there’s not a game on?” I demur, he persists – and this rather hollow stand-off only ends when, ten minutes later, we see a sullen-looking gaggle of maroon-clad figures loitering outside the ticket office of Tribuna 3. “It must be a friendly then, I hope you don’t get bored,” smirks my cocksure cabbie before speeding back into town.
These aren’t the happiest of times at CFR Cluj, so perhaps the general shiftiness regarding their existence isn’t a huge surprise. Traditionally the city’s second club behind rivals Universitatea, significant investment midway through the decade sprang them from their lower-league perch and – incredibly - resulted in two league titles, three domestic cups and a maiden Champions League campaign. Last season’s ‘double’ ensured more of the latter for 2010/11, but the whiff of fairytale has gone. The most recent successes are despite, rather than because of, Italian coach Andrea Mandorlini, so it goes – with the weight of talent at his disposal tending to tip the odds in CFR’s favour even when performances were turgid and shape stagnant. The side wasn’t without luck with late penalty awards in crucial games, either. A dreadful start to this season has smacked slightly, I’m informed, of chickens coming home to roost – and last weekend’s appalling 3-0 defeat at newly-promoted Sportul Studentesc, explained away by Mandorlini as the result of training too hard, is perhaps a nadir for these times of plenty.
As such, it’s clearly not going to be a huge turnout in this three-sided arena – one that would draw predictable comparisons to the Kassam Stadium if it wasn’t quite so metallic. The two newest stands are spacious, neat and clearly comfortable, but inspecting their underbellies and – later – pounding their gangways yields the alarming feeling that they’re little solider than the temporary structures that non-league sides might erect for FA Cup paydays. This said, the overall effect is smart and shiny. There’s just a part of me, be it romantic or dinosaur, that pines for one of the horrifying concrete bowls so beloved of the old Eastern Bloc, and my mind flits back to an uncomfortable March afternoon spent stalking around OFK Belgrade’s Omladinski Stadion last year as I pick up my accreditation from the security guard at Tribuna 2 and head into the warm, trophy-studded foyer.
Mine's a league and cup double. Trophy-studded foyer - tick.
A warm welcome from the Kassam Stadium?
Dr Constantin Radulescu I presume?
I’m not really doing this ‘properly’, you see. Having discovered during another branch of said Serbia trip that producing evidence of my day job mistakes me conveniently for a visiting scout, I’ve flourished it a few days in advance this time and now find myself pounding the stairs towards the press box - via an item-by-item tour of a trophy cabinet that definitely didn’t exist five years ago. The early-arriving fans, meanwhile, bundle into the only pre-match pub in sight – a place that, by day, appears to be somebody’s house. And well they might, because it’s soft drinks all the way inside Dr Constantin Radulescu Stadium. I thank my stars that my brief is to be smart and sensible this evening.
The press box fills far more quickly than the stadium. Each Romanian match is screened, live, at a different time across the weekend, so this occasion is its own set-piece even if it’s not especially merited on paper. In town are Pandurii Targu-Jiu, old acquaintances from the lower leagues who gained a stay of execution from relegation last season due to the demise of International Curtea de Arges, relegated three divisions after their owner withdrew financial support. Not unpredictably, they’re bottom this time around – so it’s generally assumed to be the ideal fixture for a floundering giant to, at very least, paper over some cracks. The one element of doubt: CFR have not lost a home match since April 4, 2008 – easily a Romanian record. The winners that day? You got it.
And so we begin, to the smack-smacking of lips on cheeks in front of me – directly beneath the press box, the late-arriving CFR WAG corps files in haphazardly. Pandurii are small, neat, inventive – rarely using high or long passes and boasting a couple of tricky midfielders in Claudiu Voiculet and the balding left-sider, Daniel Orac. To the eye, CFR are a different specimen entirely. They’re far bigger and stronger, enough to keep most Pandurii incursions at arm’s length, but not as fluid and rather more direct. You sense that they’re going to be the more efficient of the sides, though. Tall holding midfielder Gabriel Muresan begins the match as he finishes, the outstanding player on the pitch, while Juan Culio aids and abets, working tirelessly to turn around possession at either end of the pitch.
CFR use a 4-3-3 that turns, resolutely, into a very flat 4-5-1 when the smallest sniff of defensive responsibility arises. It means that wide attackers Emmanuel Kone and Ioan Hora are rarely high enough up the pitch to express themselves or link with lone striker Cristian Bud, who would clearly be more comfortable with a partner. Injuries and suspensions – the latter applying to the closely-scouted Lacina Traore – have played their part in depleting CFR’s attacking resources, but little about their offensive setup really announces itself as a good fit.
Team sheet with additional code that only Nick and Arsene Wenger understand - meh. Having said that, note circling of Pandurii No.9 Bogdan Apostu, and get me the News of the World on the line whilst you're about it.
Security was tight for the, ahem, zero away fans.
Somebody's house? Nope, it's the only pub in sight around the good Doctor's stadium.
But, as expected, it’s the efficiency that counts. When CFR score they score twice, and quickly. In the 19th minute, a challenge from a left-sided corner falls to Kone, who scores unfussily. Five minutes later, a flag kick from the same side is scuffed, but Culio has the presence of mind to backheel across the box to the impressive centre-back, Hugo Alcantara, whose finish is clinical. Orac remonstrates angrily with his defence; nobody acknowledges him with as much as a glance.
The supporters, who have probably scraped the 7,000 mark and include precisely no obvious followers from Targu-Jiu, have woken up now – around 150 ultras in the corner leading an impressive series of flag-waving displays. Then, to my astonishment, the entire stadium joins in with a chant that can only be likened to Emilia’s ‘Big Big World’, a track that not even Scooter could redeem. In accompaniment, each supporter pounds his feet on the metal beneath him and adds perfect substance to the impression that our eyrie really is rather fragile. Equally as strangely, it never happens again.
CFR could close it all out before the break, but the otherwise underwhelming Rafael Bastos is denied brilliantly. The second period is fairly sterile; CFR (pronounced ‘Chay-Feh-Ray’) are pretty happy to go with what they have while Pandurii, for all their continued earnestness and ease on the eye, have no serious central attacking threat and don’t look remotely likely to score. That is until they do, six minutes from time, when nimble substitute Florian Hidisan is – perhaps – felled in the box and the mercurial Voiculet converts. Suddenly the Pandurii bench comes alive, for the first time. Ionut Badea, your staple Eastern European jeans-wearing coach, springs from side to side, mirrored more gauchely by a bulky moustachioed assistant, urging his troops forward. They oblige, CFR having long since retreated into their shell, but can’t muster the point they probably deserve. Give these guys a focal point in attack and they might not end up the lost cause that, probably, they will prove to be. CFR haven’t been impressive winners, but the standard of the match has beaten my expectations.
One of the last off the pitch, having assiduously hailed all three sides of the ground, is CFR substitute Sixto Peralta, who is clearly popular among the faithful. He’s as good a reason as any for me, a son of Ipswich, to be here this evening. His loan spell with the Portman Road side, as a young Inter Milan midfielder, came during the unspeakably disappointing 2001/02 season, but his twinkle-toes and can-do demeanour dealt him full-time cult status in Suffolk. Today, he’s leggier than I remember and spends 20 minutes doing simple things. Having been an important figure in his first year or so at CFR, he’s clearly on the fringes of Mandorlini’s plans – with a wage that, by Romanian standards, shouldn’t be sat on by a substitute. It’s a wage Ipswich could afford though, and I idly wonder at the fate of a player who never quite finished his business in East Anglia as I clang up the metal steps and out.
This taxi driver is taciturn. We exchange not a word, bar the address of my accommodation – all adding to the strange sense that CFR occupy a realm quite separate from conventional everyday life in Cluj-Napoca. To me, they’re the unspoken success story. Perhaps it’s their rapid rise, so scorned by fans of olde worlde Universitatea, or maybe the behemoth that is Steaua Bucharest still holds primary sway nationally. I’ve time to think on it because there’ll be no dancing for me today I’m afraid, Jelena. A quiet beer in the hostel it is, as I’m due on the train to Sighisoara just after 9am and it’s well after midnight.
In my compartment is a guy of about 20 – a Steaua fan, no less, who studies drama in the capital. He was staying close to the stadium last night, asks me about the game, listens as I speak warmly of the greatly appreciated hospitality and welcome I was given by all at CFR. “I was interested in the game but we have better things to do on a Saturday night,” he says. “I’ll get a ticket to Steaua v Liverpool in the Europa League, I hope, but a night in Cluj isn’t for football!”
I don’t particularly agree. The following day, as I’m touring near-deserted Saxon villages in a 4 x 4, I reflect that it’s not really been your typical football weekend – but that a match in the curiosity of CFR’s sleekly-appointed surroundings is a must-see if you’re there. Just make sure you don’t tell Cluj-Napoca’s bar staff where you’re off to, because the night’s yet young.
Read more of Nick's work on his fine blog Last Seat on the Plane
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