The fact that AFC Rapid Bucuresti and FC Steaua Bucuesti have both reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals is a source of pride for Romanian football. They are the capital's most popular teams, perhaps the nation's, and their runs are not only a welcome return to European club football's top table after so long away, but they prove that Romanian football is still a force to be reckoned with after three consecutive qualification failures for the national team. But amid the euphoria of such a match taking place on such an exalted stage is a clear concern.
Eyes of Europe
When these sides last met in the Romanian league in October, the match was very nearly suspended as seats and stones were thrown on to the pitch. Each team was ordered to play two home games behind closed doors, and it continued a pattern of fixtures between these rivals being marred by violence, or at least an intimidating atmosphere. With the eyes of Europe, as the national president has put it, upon Bucharest for this tie over the next two Thursdays, however, the clubs and the Romanian football authorities are determined that things will be different - and for reasons that go beyond football.
After the draw was made a fortnight ago, the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) took matters into their own hands. It convened a meeting of both clubs, their respective supporter organisations, the Romanian police chief, a private security company that will assist the police at both legs, the president of the National Council for the Fight Against Discrimination, the general secretary of the National Committee Against Violence in Sport and the president of the National Authority for Youth. All contributed with ideas to the discussion, with one goal - that this match goes off without trouble in the glare of international attention.
Not only that, but the president of Romania, Traian Basescu, invited both teams to his palace to receive medals marking their achievement but warned them: "The whole of Europe will have their eyes on you. Any violence or racism will destroy everything you have built on the pitch." The incidents that marred last season's Milan derby in the UEFA Champions League stand as an example.
'Football, not war'
FRF sport director Daniel Prodan said: "We are all Romanians, and this is a football competition, not a war. We must understand that it's vital to transform this event into a perfectly organised show.
It would be a pity to spoil all of what those wonderful players and coaches have achieved. We also make an appeal to the Romanian media, to help us prepare properly for these matches and not to speak about war. This is only a sporting rivalry and nothing else."
The clubs too have pledged to do all they can. Steaua have a particular incentive for the game to go off without incident, having been punished for the racist conduct of their supporters during their UEFA Champions League match against Shelbourne FC. Steaua general manager Mihai Stoica said: "After the match against Shelbourne, when we were fined, our fans started an anti-racism campaign, marked by banners displayed at games including our UEFA Cup ties. One of our best players, Banel Nicolita, is Roma and he will be our ambassador in our new campaign against racism. We guarantee that all measures will be taken."
Rapid general secretary Constantin Zotta said: "We have played 14 matches in the UEFA Cup season and all UEFA delegates have written favourable reports concerning the organisation and fan behaviour. There will not be any problems." That was underlined by a joint statement from each of the fan group chiefs: "We love our clubs and we are well aware that if we would do something bad, only our clubs would suffer. And we don't want that."
But there is no complacency, and the police have set out detailed plans to handle the match. How important success is, beyond even the footballing sphere, was emphasised by Csaba Ferenc Asztalos, the National Council of Fight Against Discrimination president, who said: "These matches are very important, because we are being monitored by the European Union, which we want to join at the beginning of next year and a negative report would have disastrous consequences." The council have launched a campaign with the FRF entitled 'Let racism be offside', with each team to carry banners containing this slogan, and the players to wear similar T-shirts during warm-up.
Every effort, then, is being made to ensure that Romania's on-pitch success in the UEFA Cup is matches by an off-pitch triumph. Not only are the clubs determined to prove they are among Europe's footballing elite, but that Romanians can put on a sporting show as good as any on the continent.
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