As a lifelong City fan, who had yet to travel away in Europe and with a long overdue holiday needed, I’d planned to take a trip to see the Champions League play-off game should it be a place worth visiting. I had my fingers crossed for Rome or Monaco. Bucharest was far from my mind.
As Giorgio Marchetti unfolded the UEFA branded paper with Steaua Bucharest the pragmatist in me realised that it would be draw worth taking, even if I couldn’t attend. Alas, City were next out of the bowl. With the draw and the date set in stone I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t quite the glamour tie I wished for. If there could be such a thing as a glamorous qualification game!
Within a few minutes I received a text which simply said “Bucharest?” – it was a call to arms. I did a little research and booked the flights and hotel knowing that a ticket for the game wouldn’t be too difficult to source given the time of year, venue and ten days turnaround time. This was a game for hardcore away fans.
With a guarantee of a match ticket obtained I became optimistic that this impromptu trip could be a chance to travel and see a part if the world I’d not previously had on my bucket list. Rome and Monaco will just have to wait.
In the taxi from the airport the driver engaged us with woes of Rapid Bucharest’s demise – the workers club had gone from league champions to the fifth tier in the space of 13 seasons – and something of a defence of the country. “You will see that Bucharest is beautiful. People only hear the bad of Romania. But you will see and you will be back”. It’s true that my knowledge of Romania was scarce. Save for the demise of the of the Ceaușescu government, a few great players (Hagi, Petrescu and Pantillimon) and the 1994 World Cup teams blonde ambitions I knew little of the country and people. Over the course of the four days I’d learn a lot.
My first night was spent in the welcoming atmosphere of the old town. Knowing nods were exchanged from blue to blue at each bar we sat. The understanding nod. The nod that says: “you and me are both the same”. As the night progressed gravity took charge of us like-minded souls, and most of the blues in Bucharest, found themselves in The Drunken Lords pub. The City crest adorned flags and tabletops, and a seemingly nonstop rotation of YouTube videos played on the big screens.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a cynical ploy to fill the place and make Leu while the sun shone. And you’d be partly right. However, there was a genuine warmth here. With the DJ set littered with City favourites, fans and staff sang, drums were pounded and flares lit. There was never a sense this would spill over into anything other than a good time for all and the few hundred City fans appreciated the effort made for us.
Come the night of the game the ubiquitous Twitter posts advised of tight security, hour-long delays to get into the ground and a need to “respect the badge”. Consensus amongst those I spoke to in the impressive Arena Națională, the Romanian Wembley, was that while the body armour of the police resembled RoboCop and the messages from #MCFC cautious, this was excessive. A friendlier away game I cannot recall.
It’s been widely reported that City brushed aside an inferior team with some excellent football. And I’m sure if you’re reading this you know that there is some division amongst fans surrounding the Pep style of play and the future of some of the players who have helped build a regular trophy winning team. But what has not been mentioned was the appreciation of the Bucharesti people. Post-match a large proportion of the home fans stayed to applaud both sets of players. English-speaking locals who saw the game made an effort to say how well we played and to wish us luck in winning the Champions league proper (without tempting fate I’d say we’ve got a better than good chance of getting through to the group stages now!). Even the Romanian press deemed us “de neoprit” – unstoppable. Understanding you’ve taken a beating and still having the grace to take it in the right manner is a great quality with football fans. A lucky draw against a gegenpressing Dortmund in 2012 sprang to mind!
Outside our hotel there was a piece of graffiti. It read “People like you and me get up on Monday”. This simple but effective scrawl of ideology symbolised something to for me. That no matter where you are in the world, from Bucharest to Bolton, football is the same. Football fans are the same. We all follow our teams with an unbreakable unity. The Steaua fan behind the reception will get up on Monday without a hope of Champions League glory for another year but will still support his team. The Rapid fans will bemoan a drop to Liga V but will still get up and support their team. And City fans will carry on supporting and moaning in equal measure. As every one of us followers of the beautiful game is guilty of. And always will be. Safe in the knowledge that fellow fans can suffer and elate in a part of the world I’d never imagined going reaffirmed exactly why I love football. My Romanian trip was a worthy one.