It was 30 years ago today that Romania drew 1-1 against Czechoslovakia in Bratislava to get to their first UEFA European Championship: a landmark achievement.
It was only the second time since World War Two – after the 1970 FIFA World Cup – that Romania had qualified for a major tournament, and forward Ion Geolgău feels the success was very much down to one of the players who had starred in Mexico: coach Mircea Lucescu. "Mr Lucescu made it happen, with those training camps, friendly games and attention to detail – like choosing the right studs for each pitch."
The authorities in communist Romania believed strongly in sport and education, and it seemed that grassroots work was bearing fruit when a Romania side featuring Ioan Andone, Mircea Rednic and Romulus Gabor won bronze at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in October 1981. All three were handed debuts by Lucescu in his first match in charge on 11 November that year – a 0-0 draw in Switzerland.
The former FC Corvinul Hunedoara player-coach – just 36 when appointed by Romania – also tried out 25-year-old defender Gino Iorgulescu, gave a second cap to Michael Klein (one of his players at Corvinul, along with Rednic, Andone and Gabor) and recalled László Bölöni after a one-year absence. It was the start of a process by which the workaholic Lucescu forged a successful team.
Training camps and friendlies were paramount: there were nine of the latter in 1982, including away fixtures against Argentina (1-0), Peru (2-0) and Chile (3-2) in the space of a week, and ten in 1983, with innovations in this no-stone-unturned approach including thorough analysis of every opposing player and psychological testing.
However, Lucescu also liked to broaden players' minds. "I have always believed that culture and education are essential," he explained. "At that time we lived behind the Iron Curtain and we were always shy and suspicious. At every away match, we scheduled a visit to a museum or a sightseeing trip, and I always told my players that our opponents are human beings just like us."
That cosmopolitan outlook helped Romania overcome a daunting 1984 UEFA European Championship qualifying draw, which pooled them with a Czechoslovakia side that had finished third at EURO '80, tough customers Sweden and Cyprus as well as world champions Italy. However, with several of his players – including captain Costică Ștefănescu, Ilie Balaci and Rodion Cămătaru – reaching the 1982/83 UEFA Cup semi-finals with FC Universitatea Craiova, Lucescu's men had an appetite for continental competition.
While a 0-0 draw with ten men in Florence and a 1-0 victory in Bucharest against Italy had the world taking notice, a 1-0 home loss to Czechoslovakia levered Romania off the top of the section. They regained ground with 1-0 wins in Solna and Limassol, yet still needed to avoid defeat in Bratislava in their last game to be one of the eight sides to contest the finals in France.
Preparation, once more, was key. "The build-up began several days earlier, at a training camp in the Netherlands," Geolgău recalled. "We drew 1-1 against a club side and the vice-president of the National Sports Authority, an intelligence general, was furious. I asked him: 'Wouldn't a 1-1 in Bratislava be good? That's the result we need.' His face changed. I was right, but I did not have a clue I was going to play.
"One of the boys got injured and Mr Lucescu told me I would start," continued Geolgău, who opened the scoring on 82 minutes before Milan Luhový equalised for the Czechoslovaks. "The weather was terrible but we knew that and we got the right studs for snow or ice. In the end, we did it and we had every reason to be proud."
Among the unused substitutes that day was another Lucescu discovery, 18-year-old Gheorghe Hagi, who had been awarded his debut in a friendly against Norway in August 1983 and went on – along with goalkeeper Silviu Lung, Cămătaru, Andone, Rednic and Klein – to play at EURO '84 as well as the 1990 World Cup, which heralded the arrival of Romania's 'golden generation'.
Although they claimed just one point in the French finals, simply being there was a massive achievement. "We only scored nine goals in eight matches in qualifying," the FC Shakhtar Donetsk boss remembered. "At that time we could not afford to put on a show – our only priority was to win."
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